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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Panama: Darién Lowlands

2017 Narrative

IN BRIEF: Panama’s vast and sparsely populated Darien Province contains some of the most remote and wild lowland and montane wilderness remaining in Central America.  From the end of the highway in the port town of Yaviza to the mountains along the Columbian border there are virtually no roads, and the local Embera people use small dugout canoes to travel around and transport their goods.  In early 2014 the Canopy Tower company completed work on a comfortable permanent tented camp near the end of the highway surrounded by an excellent forest reserve that protects the watershed for the small town of Sanson.  These large tents, positioned on hardwood platforms with decks that give excellent views of the surrounding forest offer individual bathrooms and showers, electricity and full sized very comfortable beds.  The camp grounds have been heavily planted with flowering and fruiting plants, and we awoke each morning to the sounds of calling Yellow-throated and Keel-billed Toucans, Streak-headed and Cocoa Woodpeckers and a bubbling colony of Chestnut-headed Oropendolas that were nesting just above the common building.   Although much of the primary forest remains far off the road system we spent a very enjoyable week birding around the end of the road and out into the beginnings of Embera territory.  The bird highlights were many, from huge Great Green Macaws floating by to Blue Cotingas gleaming from the trees, Black Antshrikes lurking in the undergrowth, Spot-breasted and Golden-green Woodpeckers working trees just overhead, Dusky-backed Jacamars courtship feeding or the surprisingly attractive and range restricted Black Oropendolas there were truly wonderful birds throughout the trip.  We made the most of our two travel days as well, with the much hoped for Sapayoa appearing on cue in the hilly forest trails of Nusagandi on the way out to the Darien and a wealth of antbirds popping up for us on the way back to Panama City including the dazzling Ocellated and Spotted Antbirds in the San Francisco Reserve, and Jet Antbird and Rufous-winged Antwren near Lake Bayano.  These areas in the Darien are little explored and I am sure that the creation of a comfortable lodge here will produce a lot of new discoveries.  I very much look forward to returning next fall!

IN FULL: We started off the second WINGS visit to the newly established Canopy Camp Darien by visiting the rolling ridges along the continental divide in Nusagandi.  Here a nicely paved road leaves the Pan-American Highway and then heads due north for the Caribbean coast, on the way crossing through some excellent foothill forest.  A network of trails wind up and around short but steep-sided hills covered in excellent forests that cloak the numerous meandering creeks.  With a local guide in tow we elected to check out one of the shorter trails in pursuit of our main target bird of the morning, the Sapayoa.  Once thought to be a manakin or even a tyrant flycatcher this bird is now placed in its own family, being closely related to the old world broadbills.  Nowhere common in its very limited range, the trails around Nusagandi offer perhaps the most reliable access to this enigmatic little bird. En route down to the creek we stopped to admire our first mixed understory flock which contained White-flanked and Checker-throated Antwrens, a pair of wonderfully vocal Song Wrens and a male Blue-crowned Manakin.  We reached the first creek crossing just as some light rain began to fall.  We waited out the shower and scouted a bit along the rocky creek bed but found conditions initially quiet, although a perched pair of Black-throated Trogons and a nesting Crowned Woodnymph were well appreciated.  Given our desire for locating Sapayoa we decided to continue on to the second creek crossing (which involved a bit of steep muddy walking).  This proved a bit arduous, but when we arrived we found a nice sized mixed flock across the creek from us.  Initially we were alerted to the flock by the presence of a furtive Tawny-faced Gnatwren that was creeping around in the understory.  Soon we picked out a pair of Spot-crowned Ant-Vireos, a Spotted Woodcreeper, a calling Stripe-throated Wren and some more White-flanked Antwrens.  While we were watching this mix of birds as they foraged above the creek we picked up a stolid bird perched quietly in the mid-story.  Sapayoa! This deep olive-green bird, with a golden sheen on the nape and crown, and a yellowish blush to the underparts is much more attractive than the field guides would suggest.  As it turned out the group was actually watching two different birds in the canopy, and after a minute or so both birds crossed the creek following the flock.  We walked back to the road with a bit of a spring in our steps (and a lot of mud on our pant legs), arriving just a bit before lunchtime.  A pair of Pied Puffbirds delayed our departure a bit, but we soon left the Nusagandi area behind and turned further east on the Pan-American highway.

About an hour and a half later we stopped at a small restaurant in Torti, where hummingbird feeders and some large trees made for some excellent birding while we waited for lunch.  At the feeders were several Black-throated Mangos, vying for food with Rufous-tailed and Snowy-bellied Hummingbirds, a few Scaly-breasted Hummingbirds, a lone Long-billed Starthroat and several dazzling Sapphire-throated Hummingbirds.  We ate lunch on the patio adjacent to the feeders, enjoying cold drinks and lifebirds concurrently.  It was not only hummingbirds that captured our attention here though; some calling Yellow-crowned Tyrannulets revealed themselves by perching atop a large tree just off the deck, and a lovely Streaked Flycatcher (and perhaps less lovely flock of House Sparrows) were in the restaurant parking lot.  A quick stop at a nearby bakery proved similarly productive for birds as out in the front carpark we spotted perched Social Flycatcher, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Yellow-crowned Euphonia and small group of Orchard Orioles.  Soon thereafter we crossed into Darien Province (with the requisite stop for a photo of the entrance arch) and began the home stretch to the camp.  In the late afternoon bird activity picked up along the road though, so we were delayed a bit in our arrival due to birds like Aplomado Falcon, Orange-chinned Parakeet and Red-lored Parrots which all decided to perch near the road for our enjoyment.  We also stopped to admire a troupe of Mantled Howler Monkeys that were busily dismembering some large fruits in a roadside tree. We arrived at the camp in the early evening, with time to get acquainted with the cabins and grounds, enjoy a truly wonderful meal, and then drift off to sleep, serenaded by a calling Mottled Owl and a chorus of frogs that had likely enjoyed the brief bout of late afternoon rain.

For the second full day of the tour we elected to spend our time birding the camp grounds, trails and entrance road.  This turned out to be an excellent choice, as we tallied an amazing amount of diversity (over 70 species) during the morning, without walking more than a half-mile from the lodge.  We started off by birding around the main common area where a Laughing Falcon was perched and calling from a Cercropia tree at the edge of the clearing and where a busy colony of Chestnut-headed Oropendolas kept us aurally and visually entertained for some time as they cackled and whistled overhead and went about the serious task of building their 3 foot long hanging nests.  The many planted Verbena bushes were attracting pushy White-vented Plumeleteer and Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds while some red flowers along one of the buildings were hosting our first Rufous-breasted Hermit; a stocky bicolored Hermit that lacks the characteristic white tail spikes of most hermits.   After breakfast we spent a bit of time looking at perched Rusty-margined Flycatchers and discussing some of the identification features that help separate this species from the many other yellow bellied and black and white headed lookalike species in the area.  We then walked down the entrance road, which passes through some patches of forest, cleared land and areas of planted gardens.  This proved most productive, as in the space of only an hour and a half we recorded a suite of truly wonderful birds.  An inquisitive White-bellied Antbird actually came out in the open and remained frozen in place for seemingly more than 5 minutes (a truly uncharacteristic move for this generally secretive antbird that prefers the cover of dense grass).  We found a pair of Double-banded Graytails (a small Furnarid restricted to the Darien and adjacent Colombia) building a surprisingly large stick nest in the canopy of one of the garden trees.  Watching these small birds break off terminal twigs from nearby trees and then fly them back to their rapidly growing nest was a great experience.  Woodpeckers were particularly prevalent around the garden, with multiple Crimson-crested, a pair of Red-rumped and one Black-cheeked Woodpecker each appearing in turn.   Out near the camp gate we found some fruiting trees that were attracting Yellow-crowned, Thick-billed and Fulvous-vented Euphonias as well as our first Forest Elaenias and Yellow-breasted Flycatchers. 

In the mid-morning we walked into the adjacent forest on one of the camp trails. The trail crosses a small creek and then winds up a short hill, with hikers assisted by an ingenious set of tied-in rope handrails.  After driving through a lot of cleared habitat en route to the lodge it was great to see some large trees and extensive forest on the slope above us, and from within the forest it was hard to imagine that just a kilometer away were cattle pastures and a highway.  Soon after ascending the hill we began to pick up birds more typical of the forest interior.  Some clicking noises alerted us to a few displaying male Golden-headed Manakins, a perfect study in excellent bird design – with bright colours and interesting behavior all tucked into an undeniably cute package.   Nearby a Black-faced Antthrush stalked around in the understory just far enough to avoid our prying eyes, but calling nearly constantly in its slow three-note whistle.  Cocoa and Streak-headed Woodcreepers gave us a bit of a run around but eventually they slipped up and came over to the “good” side of the trunks.  A beautiful Whooping Motmot (part of the old Blue-crowned complex) put on a fine display in the sub canopy, with its tail flicking back and forth like a pendulum, and its electric blue brow glinting in the sun.  A little less cooperative, but still attractive Gartered Trogon (part of the old Violaceous Trogon complex) sat up nearby in a truly magnificently large Cuipo tree.  As we walked back down towards the camp we stopped to scrutinize small Slender and Stream Anoles that were scampering about on the low vegetation, even getting the Stream Anole in the scope for a very close look at its banded eye ridge.  A small mixed flock near the trailhead revealed a handsome Masked Tityra and a couple of White-shouldered Tanagers.  We had thought that the excitement was over when we reached the top of the stairs but once back on the camp grounds we found a small flock of Greater Anis perched in the shrubs above the fruit tables.  The tables were also attracting an array of mammals – with several White-faced Capuchins, a couple of Geoffrey’s Tamarins and a Red-tailed Squirrel who seemed intent on eating its weight in bananas. 

After lunch and a short siesta we explored the end of the Pan-American highway, which has recently been vastly improved with modern bridges, good tarmac, and even pull-outs and shelters for buses.  Despite the improvements the last 15 miles or so of the highway past the camp is still lightly trafficked, and offers some excellent birding in small roadside wetlands, forest patches and pastures.  We stopped first at a staked out Great Potoo that was perched in a remarkably visible spot right on the edge of the road.  The bird opened its eyes a couple of times to look down at us, but otherwise remained perched motionless, as the occasional bus passed nearly underneath it.  Our next stop was a few miles further on, where some open fields, with patches of grassy marsh met with tall hedgerows and a few groves of large trees.  Although it didn’t look particularly promising initially this area proved very productive.  Out in the pastures we picked out elegant Fork-tailed Flycatchers and a couple of attractive Red-breasted Meadowlarks perching on short trees.  In the wetter areas of the field we heard the tell-tale drawn out churring of a White-throated Crake that came close to us in response to our playback but not quite close enough.  Much more cooperative though was the pair of Donacobius that popped up in the wet grasses for us to admire.  These odd birds have been moved around between families but are now generally regarded as belonging to their own monotypic family.  They seem to be a flashy hybrid between a thrasher and a wren, with more colour and moxie than either.  Widespread in the lowlands of South America this species is very range-restricted in North America, occurring only in a few scattered wetlands near the end of the highway.  Here too a sharp-eyed participant picked up a perched Pearl Kite near the road; the new world equivalent of the old world falconets.  Perhaps the most exciting find here though was of the seemingly tame Spot-breasted Woodpecker that we found in yet another roadside tree.  Certainly a candidate for most attractive new world woodpecker this stunningly patterned species is a must see for any woodpecker enthusiast.  A golden belly that turns orangey-copper on its spotted breast provides an excellent complement to the bold white face, streaked throat, red malar stripe and dark crown.  Yet further down the road we stopped at another wetland, where about a dozen Wattled Jacanas (here of the all black Panama form) plied the edge of the water.  Along the fenceline we found a pair of the perky and well-marked Pied Water Tyrants hunting over open patches of water.  Just as some light rain began to fall we heard a Grey-breasted Crake calling from a muddy pasture below the road.  It seemed a bit hopeless, as the crake was well back from our position but a bit of playback proved fruitful and we actually saw this tiny and generally secretive species peek out from the edge of the grasses and even briefly run out into the open.  The rain began to fall with more purpose, so we moved on to Yaviza, the town at the terminus of the highway.  Although the highway ends, a footbridge across the Cuchinaqui River allows folks to live on both sides of the river.  The town serves as a major port for the people of the Darien, who move around between villages primarily by motorized dugout canoe; bringing plantains and other crops to Yaviza for sale.  We visited the port building briefly in the rain, just to get the flavour of the area and snap a couple of pictures.  The rains eased off and we spent a few minutes birding in the local cemetery where we did not locate the recently found Bicolored Wrens that are sometimes seen here.  A good sized mixed flock was in the park though, including a Yellow-throated Vireo, our first Crimson-backed Tanagers and a pair of the dazzlingly attractive Orange-crowned Orioles (a local specialty).  We made a couple of stops on the way out of town, including a football pitch that was entertaining a quite wet Grey-lined Hawk and several fly-over flocks of Spectacled Parrotlets.  As the light began to dwindle and a light rain again started falling we found a very active grove of fruiting Cercropias along the road.  Dozens of Crested and Chestnut-headed Oropendolas were about the grove, and it was not long before we found a pair of Black Oropendolas among the flock.  These large and gaudy Oropendolas have a maroon back, pink bill base and tip, and bright blue and red facial wattles.  Restricted to a small area of the Darien and adjacent Colombia they are truly a Canopy Camp specialty, and perhaps the most attractive species of Oropendola to boot.  Buoyed by our success we headed back to the camp for dinner; which was interrupted by calling Mottled and Crested Owls.  The Crested was well into the forest, but the Mottled was quite close.  We tracked it down to the edge of the clearing and managed a quick view before it flew off into the night. 

Our third full day of the tour was spent largely on dugout canoes along the Chucunaque River, heading upstream into the large Embera Comarca.  This is a vast region controlled by the Embera indigenous group, with very few roads and scattered small villages along the rivers. We boarded our two dugout canoes a bit after dawn and slowly motored upstream for a couple of hours, making frequent stops for birds perched along the riverbanks.  It took us nearly two hours to reach our first set birding destination because by slowly motoring up the swollen and mud-laden river and scanning the skies and riverbank trees we recorded an astonishing 70 species of birds!  It’s simply impossible to pick a single highlight bird from the mornings cruise, but the undeniable frontrunner might well be the male Blue Cotinga that flew over our boats and then landed in a prominent riverside tree, glowing like an especially bright Christmas tree ornament from the top of the tree.  Raptors were well represented, with a pair of elegant Gray-headed Kites, several Crane Hawks (of the local all-black race), many Roadside Hawks and a perched Grey-lined Hawk all showing well.  As is often the case in the tropics when one birds edge habitats adjacent to forest we saw a lot of parrots flying out to their foraging grounds from their roost sites.  Red-lored, Blue-headed Parrots and Orange-chinned Parakeets dominated, but we saw a few Mealy Parrots and a group of five Chestnut-fronted Macaws as well.  The presence of macaws in the area is a definite sign that stands of good primary forest remain in the region.  Stands of flowering trees attracted hordes of Yellow-rumped Caciques, as well as garrulous groups of Greater Ani and all three species of Oropendolas (including another pair of the stunning Black Oropendolas).  Grassy marshes along backwaters of the river supported lots of herons including our first Striated and Cocoi (which replace Great Blue Heron as the dominant large heron from the Darien south through South America), and a few Green Ibis.  Pairs of nicely marked Mangrove Swallows joined the less colourful Southern Rough-winged and migrant Barn Swallows in coursing over the river; often perching on small emergent stalks near our boats.  One nice mixed flock contained our only Black-chested Jays of the trip, a flashy species with a banded tail and short bushy crest.  As one might expect from a tropical river trip we frequently encountered Kingfishers perched along the banks.  Several pairs of emerald-green and large-billed Amazons, a few giant Ringed Kingfishers and a couple of comparatively diminutive Green Kingfishers all attracted the attention of our camera lenses.  Scanning the trees as we continued upstream on the Tepusi River we picked up quietly sitting Black-tailed Trogon and White-necked Puffbirds, and some not-so-quiet groups of tanagers which included our first Flame-rumped Tanagers.  We even found a local vagrant, in the form of a Yellow-rumped Warbler that was perched on some floating vegetation along the creek.  Yellow-rumpeds are an irruptive species in Central America that only occasionally reaches Panama, so seeing one this far East in the country was exceptional. 

Eventually we reached our first planned stop, and after climbing up a set of makeshift earthen stairs dug into the riverbank we arrived at a small banana plantation set into the riverine forest.  About a year before our visit the local Canopy Camp guides located a pair of Dusky-backed Jacamars at this spot.  This small and swarthy Jacamar has an extremely limited world range (like several other species in the Darien) and is quite poorly known.  Our excellent luck held and not only did we get to enjoy lengthy views of the Jacamars as they engaged in courtship feeding but we found a pair of Barred Puffbirds, a flock of Wood Storks and a cooperative Cinnamon Woodpecker around the plantation as well.   After a celebratory cold drink and some mid-morning sandwiches we moved slightly downstream to the small Embera village of Nuevo Vigia.  Here we unpacked our lunch supplies under the shade of a newly constructed thatched gazebo near the boat ramp. 

We geared up for a walk out to a small oxbow lake in the nearby forest, and after briefly checking out the assembled selection of woven masks, bowls and plates that the villagers had for sale we set off down the muddy trail.  The locals were aware of our hiking plans and several young lads had just finished clearing some new passages around the worst of the muddy patches, which made the trail quite doable in almost any footwear.  Passing through some old second-growth vine-rich forest the trail offers excellent access to a suite of nice birds.  We found the initial half of the walk rather slow, but once we neared the small oxbow lake several mixed flocks held our attention for quite some time.  A furtive but persistently present Red-billed Scythebill was an excellent find.  As was a frustrating pair of Moustached Antwrens that led us on a merry chase as they bopped about in the canopy over the trail.  Resident birds like Brown-capped Tyrannulet, Cinnamon Becard, Olivaceous Piculet and Long-billed Gnatwren joined migrants like Bay-breasted, Tennessee, Chestnut-sided and Yellow Warblers and Acadian and Great Crested Flycatchers in the same active flocks.  At one point we heard the unmistakable wing snapping display of a male Golden-collared Manakin, and with a bit of jockeying around were able to see the bright yellow and black bird displaying over his court.  He puffed out his elongated yellow throat feathers so that he appeared to possess a lengthy beard, and drooped both wings before rapidly bouncing back and forth over a patch of open ground while emitting loud snapping sounds by rubbing its wings together.  The overall effect is not dissimilar to the intricate displays of old world birds like Bowerbirds or Birds of Paradise, only in miniature.  Just as we approached the oxbow a pair of truly odd Red-throated Caracaras flew in towards the trail, uttering their coarse and turkey-like cries that sound so decidedly unfalconlike.  The turkeyesque comparison became even more apt when one bird teetered on its chosen perch with its wings flapping about in an ungainly fashion – making the bird look more like a Guan or oversized Chachalaca then a member of the same family that contains elegant and powerful birds like the Peregrine.

Once we reached the lake we found it to be a bit quieter than usual, perhaps due to the recent rains giving water birds so many places to hunt.  We walked along the edge of the waterway though, finding several more Kingfishers including a very cooperative American Pygmy-Kingfisher that allowed us to approach to within ten feet or so before it flashed off down the lake.  On the walk back to the village we found a pair of Bare-crowned Antbirds that actually sat out in the open near the trail for long enough for us to marvel at their bright blue bare skulls!  Though the species is present across much of Panama they are generally quite difficult to see anywhere other than the Darien.  Nearing the trailhead we were stopped one more time by a Royal Flycatcher that came in to playback and sat placidly next to the trail on an eye-level vine for long enough that we began to hope we might see its trademark iridescent purple and orange crest.  As is generally the case though the bird remained stubbornly unwilling to show us its flair, and after it flew off we felt the siren song of a quite late lunch calling us from the nearby village. We were delayed twice more on the last few hundred meters of the walk, as we flushed a trailside Little Tinamou, and found a soaring Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture that was circling in a pasture adjacent to the town.  After lunch and a bit of shopping at the local handicraft stall (the same gazebo we took our lunch in) we made the return journey down the Chucunaque River in a surprisingly short amount of time as we had the current helping us along.  The welcoming air conditioning in the van revived our spirits a bit and we decided to spend the last hour or so of the birding day along a short side road close to the camp.  Again this proved a most fruitful decision, as we found the scrubby forest along this road to be extremely active, with small mixed flocks of birds appearing every few minutes as we walked down the road.  Fortuitously, despite the 120 species that we had observed over the day along the river we kept finding new species on the road, surely a testament to the local diversity.  When we stepped out of the van we found ourselves in a mixed flock that contained a first year male Rose-breasted Grosbeak, several dapper Baltimore Orioles, a pair of Crimson-backed Tanagers (known to the locals as Sangre de Toro; or the blood of the bull) and an active group of White-eared Conebills (yet another Darien specialty).  Parrots and toucans were quite active in the late afternoon, with Keel-billed repeatedly crossing the road, and a near constant stream of Red-lored, Mealy and Blue-headed Parrots passing overhead.  While we were watching the skies we picked out another group of Crane Hawks and a soaring King Vulture; cutting a majestic sight against the blue sky.  Around the next bend we found another small flock.  This one contained a responsive male White-winged Becard, our first Buff-throated Saltator and perhaps the bird of the day – a stunning male Golden-green Woodpecker that remained along the road edge for our enjoyment for several minutes. The male is a wonderful combination of olive green, yellow and red and surely is another candidate species for the most attractive new world woodpecker award.  We walked out to a prominent curve in the road surrounded by open pasture land, but with a sweeping vista of forest in the distance, and the Talamanca range on the horizon.  These heavily forested mountains remain little explored by ornithologists and likely contain a wealth of surprises for some future intrepid graduate student.  While going over the extensive day list after dinner we realized that we had unknowingly completed the unprecedented woodpecker sweep, seeing all nine regularly occurring local woodpeckers in a day!  

The next day we journeyed a bit farther east along the Pan-American highway to bird the El Salto Rd.  This short road runs northeast from the highway to the banks of the Cuchunaque River, giving the local Embera people access to the road system.  It is little traveled, and passes through a mix of older second growth forest and teak plantations.  The forest here is more open than that of the areas near Nuevo Vigia, and in the early morning many birds were perched up in the emergent canopy.  Here we obtained views of Scaled Pigeons and White-tailed and Black-tailed Trogons.  White-bellied Antbirds were abundant in the denser understory patches, with their descending calls near constant auditory companions.  As we had seen one so excellently a few days before we let them lurk in their chosen tangled haunts unmolested.  This was not the case with a pair of Dusky Antbirds, which we coaxed out into view with little effort. Mixed flocks were around as well, with a few new species like Yellow-backed Oriole, Southern Bentbill, Dusky-capped Flycatcher, and Fulvous-vented Euphonia joining the more familiar species.  A particularly nice find was the cooperative Choco Sirystes, an odd canopy dwelling flycatcher that somewhat resembles an Eastern Kingbird with a drinking problem (as it sits much more horizontally than a Kingbird).  Another great find was a male Blue Cotinga perched atop a roadside tree, which simply shone like a blue and purple beacon in frame-filling scope views.  As the morning drew on the temperature increased and raptors became more numerous in the open skies above the road.  We found no fewer than four individual Hook-billed Kites, including an all-black one, which is a remarkable number for such a typically rarely encountered species.  Crane and Roadside Hawks were again numerous, and amongst the strings of migrant Turkey Vultures we picked out a few high soaring Swainson’s and Broad-winged Hawks and three more striking King Vultures.  After we tracked down a pair of Gray-headed Tanagers that repeatedly crossed the road and spent a bit of time looking at some attractive crickets and an odd spider egg case in the roadside grasses we clambered back on our open-topped pickup (with comfortable bench seating) and drove through the last mile or so of the road that is largely covered in decade-old Teak plantations.  We reached the banks of the Cuchunaque in the late morning, opting to take the short trail that follows the river through dry and relatively short forest, laden with vines and fallen dry leaves.  The path was a trifle overgrown, but in the short time that we spent in the area we found a perched Whooping Motmot, our only Rufous-tailed Jacamar of the trip and a Red-billed Scythebill that remained perched and preening just in front of us for several minutes.  It is quite a feat for this woodcreeper to reach a large percentage of its upper body with its ridiculously long and curved bill.  Some distant answers to our playback experiments of Marbled Wood-Quail tape revealed that these elusive birds are in the area.  Sadly for us though they were calling from the opposite side of the river.  Although in the dry season the locals create a stationary bridge here for vehicle access to their village upstream at this time of year the rushing waters make for a stern barrier to pedestrians.  We drove back to the camp, stopping along the way to admire a soaring Black Hawk-Eagle and a latish Chimney Swift circling over the road.

During our siesta after lunch the sweltering humidity reached a peak and a proper tropical downpour that lasted about an hour (conveniently the hour that we were tucked away in our tents) set upon us.   When we reconvened the rains had ceased and we boarded our van for a trip around the west end of the mountain ridge behind the camp, with the goal of reaching a large wetland in the farming community of Aguas Calientes.  After driving through the town of Meteti (the largest town in the Darien) and crossing the scenic gap through the mountains we transferred from our van to the camp’s four wheel drive open topped pickup.  We set off down a wet gravel road heading for the marshes, but our plans soon went awry when we discovered that the recent rains had caused the creek to swell to a depth of about 3ft.  We deemed that to be an unnecessary risk to our trusty truck and decided to spend the rest of the afternoon exploring the remarkably good road that continues south from Meteti to the boat dock at Puerto Quimba.  This dock serves as a major port for communities all around the southern Darien, and provides the most ready access to the road system from the state’s capitol; Las Palmas, which is inaccessible by road.  Birding from the back of the truck proved productive, and the road had little traffic for us to impede.  Small wetlands (some likely only recently turned into ponds by the rain) dotted the initial part of the drive.  The fields were hosting some Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Wattled Jacana, various herons and our first Tropical Mockingbird and Plain-breasted Ground-Doves.  Many of the trees around the clearings were decorated with parrots, pigeons or raptors that were attempting to dry out a bit before nightfall.  A bit further south we passed through the tiny town of Rio Iglesias, where our arrival was met with a bit of curiosity from the neighborhood dogs (and locals).  Just south of the town we began to see a few Gray-headed Chachalacas, a species which has become quite wary and scarce along the main highway due to hunting pressure.  We were also happy to find an eye-level and roadside male Blue Cotinga that nearly seared the back of our retinas with its brilliant blue and purple plumage.  Near the port we began to see dense mangrove forest, and when we arrived at the dock were surprised to see how wide the tidal river is here, and how dense and tall the mangroves were.  We spent an enjoyable half-hour on the riverbank scanning the skies and mudflats and watching wading birds fly to their evening roosts.  Large numbers of White Ibis and Cattle Egrets flew by throughout our visit, and we spotted a few Brown Pelicans, Whimbrel, Spotted Sandpipers and Little Blue Herons as well.  Near the end of our time here we began to see numbers of Lesser Nighthawks circling above the mangrove forest. 

On the drive back north towards the highway we saw dozens more, many of which passed close enough overhead for us to see the rounded wingtips that marked them as Lesser Nighthawks rather than the locally more rare Common Nighthawk.  In a stretch of road that paralleled some mangroves we spotted a perched Common Black Hawk that soon plummeted off its perch heading for the creek below and doubtless some hapless crab or fish.  At our last stop, back near the town of Rio Iglesias where we were studying a particularly large flock of Lesser Nighthawks one of the participants noted a perched Grey Kingbird (a very scarce species in the Darien) sitting on a nearby utility wire.  All in all we enjoyed the impromptu exploration and turned up a few nice birds; a vastly superior outcome to being stuck in a rushing muddy creek…  We drove back to the camp, arriving in the dark, with a Forest Rabbit along the entrance road providing a pleasant distraction.  That night after dinner a few of the group were successful in tracking down a calling Crested Owl that was sitting well out from one of the cabins in a giant tree.  Even at such a great distance it was possible to see the ridiculously oversized drooped white eyebrows that seem far to long for an owl to carry around without some degree of self-consciousness. 

The next day we elected to take advantage of some recent information that Great Green Macaws were being regularly seen down a nearby road early in the morning.  We set off after an early breakfast and after about 45 minutes on the highway and on a paved road that headed south passing through a depressing amount of cleared pasture land we again transferred into the camps four wheel drive pickup.  The dirt road that winds back through several small fincas and teak plantations was passable, but quite muddy with some areas that even the truck needed special care to navigate.  While we waited for Elicer to open the last gate through the fields we noted a Solitary Sandpiper sitting in the shade of a large tree in the adjacent field.  Oddly, the bird was simply standing in mud, with no real water body nearby.  Although the road passed through largely cleared forest we found a lot of open country birds in the hedgerows and patches of forest along the creeks.  Roadside, Crane, and Gray-lined were all common, and over the course of the morning here we added Common Black, Great Black and Zone-tailed Hawk and Gray-Headed and White-tailed Kite for a really diverse raptor show.  We arrived at the private ranch at about 7:30 and spent about a half hour scanning the forested ridges for macaws.  Parrots were seemingly everywhere, with perched Red-lored, Mealy and Blue-headed in all directions, but we saw no sign of their giant cousin.  After spending a bit of time scoping a distant pair of Red-throated Caracara and picking through a mixed flock that contained a nice selection of lowland tanagers we decided to continue on the muddy road on foot. 

From the ranch house onwards the road became quite sticky, but more forested.  We walked a bit gingerly around the larger puddles and over the course of an hour or so found a nest building pair of large and striking White-headed Wrens (a local specialty with a very restricted range), a perched and inquisitive Barred Puffbird, a pair of furtive but eventually cooperative Chestnut-backed Antbirds that played hide and seek with us in a dense thicket of Heliconias and innumerable perched Yellow-throated and Keel-billed Toucans drying out in the morning sun.  Just as we were about to try to coax a stubborn pair of Black-bellied Wrens into doing more than simply zip across the road like tiny black and white cruise missiles we received a phone call from our driver who was back at the truck that the macaws had just passed overhead.  The trail back seemed shorter by quite a bit, and somehow less muddy as we walked quickly back to the clearing.  Within a minute or two of arriving we heard the deep and unmistakable cries of a large macaw from behind a row of trees.  Shortly thereafter one, and then another Great Green Macaws floated over the treetops, passing directly overhead and then circling around and landing in a dense grove of tall trees just a bit out of sight.  Despite their scientific name (Ara ambiguous) there is simply no mistaking these large parrots, with red crowns, blue flight feathers and bulky deep green bodies.  Though they are found in scattered locations through Central America they are nowhere numerous, and in Panama sightings around the road system in the Darien are to be treasured.  We changed positions slightly and were able to spot the birds back in the trees, apparently investigating a potential nest cavity in a broken off tree trunk.  Elated with our sighting we backtracked out of the muddy road system and returned to the main Pan-American Highway in short order.  As we still had some time before lunch we decided to head a bit further south, where we stopped at the same marshy wetland that we had visited a few days prior.  This time we did not detect any Pied Water-Tyrants or Gray-breasted Crakes, but we did locate several singing Ruddy-breasted Seedeaters and a perched Striped Cuckoo.  The male seedeater is a particularly well-dressed chap, with a bright rusty waistcoat and slate gray jacket.  Lunch followed back at the camp, accompanied by the whirling hummingbird show at the feeders that included our first Long-billed Hermit and several showy Sapphire-throated males. 

After a siesta and some time to clean the mud off our shoes we met for a low-key walk back on the lodge trail system.  Before we even entered the trails though we tried a bit of birding around the edge of the camp clearing.  Luck was with us once again as we managed to call in two male Spot-crowned Barbets that seemed to be more closely attached than many might expect male birds to be.  This species occurs around the Darien and on the Atlantic slope of Panama and is generally common around the camp but for some reason we had not encountered it before, so this nearly eleventh hour sighting was much appreciated.  As it was to be our last journey into the local forests we took our time walking, stopping to check out some interesting non-birds such as a bright orange spotted Tarantula and a few dragonflies and butterflies.  Just a few meters past the first creek we found a female Slaty-tailed Trogon (our 5th and final species for the Darien trip) perched along the trail and seemingly unfazed by our interest in her.  We walked up a steeper spur trail that starts to snake up into the ridges behind the camp (but has not yet been completed).  Here we found bright male Golden-collared and Golden-headed Manakins on display sites and at a small pool of water below the trail were thrilled to find a bathing Russet-winged Schiffornis.  This recent split from Thrush-like Schiffornis can be fairly common in some forests but when not vocalizing is rarely encountered.  A deep chocolate brown and devoid of typical field marks it is perhaps not the most intrinsically beautiful species, but ornithologists find them interesting and their taxonomic placement has been in question for decades.  As we neared the back end of the loop trail we unsuccessfully tried to lure in a quite vocal Black-faced Antthrush that remained just out of view in the dense understory.  A calling Olivaceous Flatbill was much more cooperative as it sat up in the mid-story of the canopy uttering its sharp rattling trill at intervals.  This was not to be our last new bird of the walk though, as we located a Yellow-margined Flycatcher in a small mixed flock near the trailhead. 

After dinner we attempted a short owling trip down the camp driveway. The resident Mottled and Crested Owls were again calling, though just after dinner when we were ready to see if we could track them down the rains cut their serenade short.  We abandoned our planned excursion and contented ourselves with views of two Common Opossums that were eating large fruits in a tree just off the common area building, and (for two of us) a large Kinkajou that was feeding on Balsa flowers at eye-level just off of one of the cabin decks.

We left the camp on the last day a little after breakfast, making the two-hour drive back west to an isolated mountain range that has been protected by an expat American preacher, and dubbed the San Francisco Reserve.   The protected area encompasses nearly the entire mountain range and was designed to protect the watershed for the nearby town of Torti.  When we arrived near the town we discovered that the rains from the camp had followed us.  Thick dark clouds surrounded the peaks.  The skies just to the north though were largely clear.  As luck would have it just a few miles north of Torti some intrepid Panamanian birders had recently located a small group of Carib Grackles along a small country road.  This newly minted Panamanian species seems to be breeding in a few scattered locations nearby and has likely been overlooked.  We decided to go look for them and soon after parking in an open field near the end of the road we were looking at three pint-sized grackles in an adjacent yard.  Two males and a female were evident, with at least one of the birds carrying nesting material into a tall column of vines.  The provenance of the source population of these birds is perhaps in question, but it looks like the species may be here to stay.  We slowly walked down the well vegetated lane that passes through a few small pastures and on to the Rio Torti, a short half-kilometer away.  It was a surprisingly active walk, with quite a few new birds for us.  The drier and open hedgerow trees held a trio of attractive Pacific Antwrens, a handsome species with an apricot headed and streaked female and black and white male.  Here too was a pair of Barred Antshrikes (oddly our only sighting across all three tours this fall), a migrant Yellow-billed Cuckoo that was attempting to devour a caterpillar larger than its own head, and our first Prothonotary Warbler, Common Tody-Flycatcher and Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet. 

By the time we had digested this wealth of new birds the skies had lightened considerably to our south so we moved over to the San Francisco Reserve, arriving to clear conditions.  We crossed the creek and walked up the occasionally steep trail that winds along a rocky stream.  Despite arriving mid-morning there was still a lot of activity along the trail.  A pair of Black-throated Trogons was sitting just over the trail, and while we stopped to admire the glossy green and yellow male we noticed a quietly perched Great Jacamar sitting just off the trail. This is perhaps the most colourful and impressive of the three species of Jacamar in Panama (and was our third species of the trip).  It was hard to pull ourselves away from this trio of gaudy birds, but the sounds of an active flock just a bit further uphill drew us away.  Here we found a pair of Chestnut-backed Antbirds hopping around along the edge of the trail, and Sulphur-rumped Flycatcher and Olivaceous Flatbill in the mid-story.  Here too was a pair of sedately perched White-whiskered Puffbirds (incredibly our sixth species of puffbird for the tour) and some busy little Checker-throated Antwrens that were busily digging around in clusters of dead leaves as is their wont.  We pressed on a bit more and were thrilled to hear a calling Ocellated Antbird a bit upslope from the trail. Perhaps the crown jewel of the Central American antbird clade this flashy species possesses a copper and black spotted back, neat black underparts and a large and bright blue bare patch of skin around its eyes.  We quickly played back some call and the birds came down to the trail, though the pair remained out of view for many of the participants and then vanished downslope.  Ocellated Antbirds are an obligate antswarm follower and when not feeding can travel large distances in search of an active swarm.  Our disappointed about the brevity of our sighting was short lived though, as right behind the pair of Ocellated came a pair of the nearly as well-marked Spotted Antbirds.  First the male and then the female perched right on the edge of the trail for our perusal, showing off to great effect.  As we walked back down to the van we stopped to watch a pair of poorly-named Buff-rumped Warblers as they hopped around on the riverside rocks well below the trail.  We were far enough above them that our views were nearly straight down which meant that their bright golden apricot rumps were flashing like small beacons on the dark grey and greens of the creek.  A bit further down the hill we stopped to admire a female Fasciated Antshrike that was climbing up some thick vines, and a pair of Slate-coloured Grosbeaks that were foraging in a dense shrub along the creek.  At the bottom of the trail the rain began to fall again, and we drove out of the park flushing reams of Ruddy, Plain-breasted and Blue Ground-Doves, Smooth-billed Anis and White-tipped Doves from along the main park road. 

After lunch back in Torti where we again enjoyed a good show from the local hummingbirds and this time were accompanied as well by a pair of Black-crowned Tityras in the nearby trees we continued west towards Panama City with a couple of stops just east of Lake Bayano.  Extensive forests surround the lake, which lies largely in the domain of the Guna indigenous comarca.  The usual trail that enters the woods here was extremely muddy and torn up by some recent vehicle tracks so we decided to continue on a bit further to the Rio Mono Bridge, a short span which crosses well above a small river thus acting a bit like a makeshift canopy tower.  As soon as we exited the van we noticed bird activity down the slope before the bridge.  A small trail exists here, leading down to a tiny banana plantation cut into the forest.  We happily went down the trail just enough to be safely away from the highway and were soon surrounded by a large flock of birds busily foraging in the canopy.  Blue Dacnis, Shining and Red-legged Honeycreepers, singing Tropical Parulas and a locally scarce Scarlet Tanager were admired in turn but soon our attention was firmly fixed on a pair of Rufous-winged Antwrens that were clambering around in the canopy somewhere above our heads.  We climbed back up to the road and were soon able to spot these quite colourful antwrens at nearly eye level.  With chestnut caps, bold white eyelines, yellow underparts, rufous wings and bold wingbars this is perhaps the sharpest of the local antwrens, and is a species with quite a limited range in Panama.  With our previous additions of Ocellated and Spotted Antbirds, Barred and Fasciated Antshrikes and Pacific Antwren this sighting made for quite an excellent day for this wonderful family of birds. 

As it turned out though, the day held one more antbird species for us.  At the nearby bridge over Lake Bayano we walked down to the lakeshore and successfully located a pair of Jet Anbirds that were calling from some dense tangles along the creek that fed into the lake.  Another thinly distributed species in Panama this antbird is indeed jet black (perhaps ornithologists were beginning to run out of adjectives to describe the browns, greys and blacks of this diverse group) although these particular birds were agitated and were repeatedly flashing the bright white down feathers on their backs.  We walked down to the lakeshore and by scanning the grass banks around the nearby cove found both Great Blue and Cocoi Herons sitting along the shore – one of the few places in the world where this combination is possible.  While standing near the small collection of dugout canoes and small boats we noticed some movement behind the grasses and by shifting our angle a bit were amazed to find three Neotropic River Otters simply sitting out on a large log, completely nonplussed by our gawking gaze and proximity.  We were able to watch them for a while as they groomed and just went about the important business of being otters, a rare treat as this species is generally wary around people.  One of the otters went up the little creek and when we followed it up we noticed that an array of birds were foraging in the more humid forest.  We imitated a Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl in a bid to drum up some interest from the local birds and were rewarded with an array of migrants including a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak and a sprightly American Redstart.  Some nice resident birds were about as well, and we especially enjoyed a comparison view of our first Lesser and Golden-fronted Greenlets and a very close view of a male White-eared Conebill, here at the western most part of its range.  As we walked back up the van we were delayed by circling Short-tailed Hawks just above the trees.

We made one last stop close to Panama City, along a quiet back road that passes through some extensive rice fields.  It was mainly just to enjoy one last bout of birding before bringing the tour to a close at our airport hotel, but the road turned out to be a great diversion.  Perhaps the best find was the adult Bare-throated Tiger-Heron that was stalking through some dense grasses that lined a small wetland.  But as the sun came out between the clouds, bathing the valley in a soft and warm-toned late afternoon light we also found a quite rare immature Red-tailed Hawk, a singing Eastern Meadowlark, no fewer than four Solitary Sandpipers and a beautifully bright adult Purple Gallinule.  We piled back into the van for the final half-hour drive to our hotel and then reminisced about the tour highlights (with Black Oropendola, Sapayoa, Great Green Macaw and Golden-collared Manakin being the standout species) over dinner. I want to thank this year’s wonderful crop of participants and our local leader Eliecer Madrid for making this a great tour to lead. I look forward to many more trips to the dynamic and rich Darien in the coming years!

-Gavin Bieber

Created: 06 December 2017