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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Panama: Darién Lowlands

2018 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, Whooping Motmots 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 the active Harpy Eagle nest site with its attendant female and fuzzy chick and male Blue Cotingas gleaming from the trees, to Black Antshrikes lurking in the undergrowth, Spot-breasted and Golden-green Woodpeckers working trees just overhead, a Dusky-backed Jacamar sitting out for us in excellent light, or the surprisingly attractive and range restricted Black Oropendolas there were truly wonderful birds throughout the trip.  This year we encountered a great variety of mammals as well, including brief views of Neotropic River Otter, Tayra and Crab-eating Fox and near daily encounters with Geoffrey’s Tamarin, White-faced Capuchin and Mantled Howler Monkey. 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 2018 WINGS visit to the 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. We headed for a particular trailhead planning to walk out into the forest in search of the enigmatic 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. As we neared the parking area thick clouds descended and shortly after we exited the van it started pouring with rain. The timing was actually fortuitous though, as conditions precluded taking the walk on the often steep trails. As we waited by the van we heard the unmistakable calls of a Bicolored Antbird from the opposite side of the road. Despite the rain we hurried over and were amazed to find that there was a still-active swarm of Army Ants in the thicket just a few feet away from our chosen parking place. It was a well-attended swarm, with a quietly sitting White-whiskered Puffbird, actively foraging Plain-brown and Northern Barred Woodcreepers and to our great delight a cooperative Ocellated Antbird joining the Bicolored as they watched for insects fleeing from the onslaught of ants. The Ocellated is perhaps the most attractively patterned species of antbird in the world. It’s a big species, clad in coppery-brown feathers with large dark centers, giving the back a highly patterned mosaic of scales. On top of this gaudy pattern the bird sports a large and bright blue patch of bare skin around the eyes offsetting a black face and throat, and an almost orange chest. We were able to see the bird through telescopes as it remained still above the foraging ants for several minutes. Quite the consolation prize for not being able to walk out in search of Sapayoa! As we drove back towards the much drier Pacific slope we stopped at a seemingly random spot in the road where a noisy group of Tawny-crested Tanagers clued us in to the presence of another mixed species flock. This group though was mainly in the canopy and included a wealth of tanagers including Bay-headed, Black-and-Yellow, and Golden-hooded as well as birds like Fulvous-vented Euphonia, Mistletoe Tyrannulet and a male Blue-crowned Manakin. In short, the group was liberally stuffed full of gaudy and colourful birds, many of which we would not be able to see around the more lowland oriented region in the Darien around the Canopy Camp. We descended back to the pacific lowlands, finding the conditions sunny until we reached our next birding stop at the Rio Mono Bridge. Here the highway crosses a deep ravine on a wide bridge with a sidewalk that offers a good view of the surrounding treetops. Just as we arrived it began to rain, making us wonder if we were somehow cursed. The rain was light enough that we could get out and have a look around, and in about twenty minutes or so we enjoyed excellent views of a troupe of Mantled Howler Monkeys along the road edge, a perched Mealy parrot, some furtive Orange-crowned Orioles (our first of the roughly 25 species that can only be seen in the Darien lowlands within North America) and an eye-level pair of Black-crowned Antshrikes.

Travelling further east, again in the sun (as the rain ceased just as we left the bridge area) we stopped along the Rio Torti, a shallow forested creek upstream from the town of Torti. This time, thankfully, the rains forgot to turn on for our arrival. Just as we exited the car we heard the high-pitched calls of a Spectacled Parrotlet, and soon found the bird perched on the top of a tall Cercropia, where it remained for quite some time. These tiny parrots are another Darien specialty, and given their small size and green body colouration they can be quite difficult to spot in the crowns of trees.

We spent about an hour walking slowly along the road that parallels the creek, where we found both Northern and Louisiana Waterthrushes bouncing along the creek edge, and several displaying male Golden-collared Manakins in low tangles above the road. Boat-billed, Social, and Rusty-margined Flycatchers were all present, allowing for a short lesson on the separation of these outwardly similar species. A mixed flock crossed our path just as we returned to the car, with three Pacific Antwrens (including excellent views of the apricot-headed female), a lurking Squirrel Cuckoo, and a pair of Red-crowned Woodpeckers. Shortly after leaving the river we stopped at a small restaurant in Torti, where hummingbird feeders and some large trees made for some excellent birding while we enjoyed a cooked lunch. At the feeders were several Black-throated Mangos, vying for positions at the feeders with Rufous-tailed and Snowy-bellied Hummingbirds, a few Scaly-breasted Hummingbirds, a couple of 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 several chattering groups of Orange-chinned Parakeets landed on the tops of adjacent trees. While we were on the patio we also witnessed active Turkey Vulture migration, with a steady trickle of birds passing overhead. At one point the line of birds became a swarm, and when we glassed the birds we were shocked to see a flock of well over a hundred Wood Storks passing through as well. Although not an unexpected species over much of Panama in November such a high number is remarkable, bettering our previous high count by orders of magnitude.

After lunch, we made the final hour and a half drive into Darien province (stopping to take photos of the state border signs and to admire some perched Blue-headed Parrots and another Squirrel Cuckoo). Once on the kilometer-long rocky driveway that leads to the camp we stopped when we noticed a perched woodpecker on a tall bare tree in a cleared pasture. Thinking that it would likely be our first Black-cheeked Woodpecker or perhaps even more likely a Red-crowned it was with some surprise when we discovered that it was actually a Spot-breasted Woodpecker. 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. To make the moment even more memorable both Red-crowned and Black-cheeked appeared in the same tree! Just before we arrived at camp we made a quick stop to watch a Red-lored Parrot that was hanging upside down in a large fruiting palm tree; a most welcome welcoming committee. We arrived at the camp in the early evening, with time to get acquainted with the cabins and grounds, watch the busy antics of Chestnut-headed Oropendolas as they began the seasons nest building above the dining area and ogle the many hummingbirds zipping in and out from the feeders spread around the grounds. A wonderful meal followed and then as we drifted off to sleep, many cabins were serenaded by a calling Mottled and Crested Owls.

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 80 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 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 trees above the dining area also attracted Black-cheeked and Red-crowned Woodpeckers, a tiny Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher, and a busy little flock that included several Thick-billed Euphonia, some Plain-coloured Tanagers and a few confiding Blue-gray Tanagers. A row of mid-sized Cercropia trees behind the building were quite productive. Along with a small family group of Cinnamon Becards we found a pair of Red-rumped Woodpeckers and a perched White-tailed Trogon. The many planted Verbena bushes were attracting several Blue-chested and Sapphire-throated Humingbirds as well as single Long-billed Starthroat, White-necked Jacobin and even a Purple-crowned Fairy. Some red flowers along one of the buildings were hosting our first Rufous-breasted Hermit; a stocky bicloured Hermit that lacks the characteristic white tail spikes of most hermits.  During breakfast the local group of White-faced Capuchins came trundling through, making a concerted run at the fruit tables where they seemed intent on competing to see which monkey could carry off the largest number of banana pieces at a time.

After breakfast, 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. A pair of responsive White-bellied Antbirds actually came out in the open and remained visible for several minutes (a truly uncharacteristic move for this generally secretive antbird that prefers the cover of dense grass). At the same tiny clearing, we found two Buff-breasted Wrens creeping about in a large vine tangle, and picked out a silently perched Royal Flycatcher. White-tipped Doves strutted about in the undergrowth, and in the verbenas along the driveway we found a glittering male Violet-bellied Hummingbird. The road was quite good for mixed species flocks as well, with some of the more interesting species including Black-crowned Tityra, Yellow-breasted Flycatcher, a perched Pale-bellied Hermit, and a female White-winged Becard. Out near the camp gate we found some fruiting trees that were attracting a nice mix of migrant warblers and vireos, several Grey Crested Flycatchers, a quietly perched Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, and Yellow-crowned, Thick-billed and Fulvous-vented Euphonias.

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. 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 handsome male Black-tailed Trogon sat high above the trail observing our progress with a placid air, and ignoring the odd angles that we had to strain into in order to get a clear view of him. In one particularly dense tangle we teased out a pair of Southern Bentbills; an odd little flycatcher with a curiously swollen and angled bill. Periodically as we walked around the nearly kilometer long loop trail we heard the distinctive wing snaps and whistles of displaying manakins. Most were Golden-collared Manakins, but eventually we located 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. Just before we finished the trail we stopped to look at a perched Ruddy-tailed Flycather (another extremely small and charismatic species) and soon noticed the telltale chuck notes that marked the presence of a pair of White-headed Wrens. These large and colourful wrens live up in the forested canopy, and with their elongated body and long tail resemble an arboreal thrasher more than a wren. It’s a species with a limited world range, occurring only in a narrow section of (mostly) far East Panama and a strip along the West coast of Colombia. 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, looking like heavy bodied glossy grackles with piercing yellow eyes and a casqued bill.

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. Our first 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. In the wetter section of the field we found a pair of Donacobius that popped up into some brush piles for us to admire. These odd birds have been moved around between several different 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. Some displaying Blue-black Grassquits, another (and very showy) pair of Spot-breasted Woodpeckers, and our first Lesser Kiskadees appeared as well, keeping us amply entertained. We continued on but stopped a bit short of our planned second stop when we noticed a medium sized raptor perched a bit off the road. Upon closer inspection, the bird looked distinctly unusual and we were soon out of the bus and looking at a handsome pale breasted raptor with a longish tail, dark wings, yellow legs and cere, and a distinct hood. It took a bit of time but we eventually nailed the identification down as Gray-bellied Hawk. With a closer look at photos and some consulting with others via the magic of the internet we discovered that the bird was actually not a Gray-bellied but rather a juvenile intermediate dark morph Gray-headed Kite; a plumage not illustrated in any field guide on hand, and one that certainly differs greatly from the species distinctive adult plumage. The stop was good for a few other birds too, with a group of Gray-headed Chachalacas, and a perched Great Black-Hawk. Yet further down the road we stopped at another wetland, where we found a pair of the perky and well-marked Pied Water Tyrants hunting over open patches of water and gathering spider webs as they began the important task of nest weaving. In the reedbeds were several Purple Gallinules in various plumages, and for a brief minute or so we had a visible Least Bittern pinned down in the scopes. A stubby little male Ruddy-breasted Seedeater showed well along the roadside fence and we picked out a quietly foraging Rufescent Tiger-Heron on the water’s edge.

We eventually moved on and reached the official terminus of the Pan-American Highway in Panama; the small port town of Yaviza. Although the highway ends, a footbridge across the Cuchinaqui River allows folks to live on both sides of the river and there are some poor dirt roads snaking out towards the forests from the opposite bank. 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 the highway to sell. After checking out the port and riverbank a bit we had felt that we had seen the highlights of the town so we moved on to spend a few minutes birding in the local cemetery where we were not able to locate the group of Bicolored Wrens that are sometimes seen here.

We did find a few interesting birds about the graves though, with a flyover Fork-tailed Flycatcher, a perched Yellow-bellied Elaenia sitting in a fruiting palm, and a small group of Short-tailed Swifts. On the way out of town we stopped at a small roadside wetland to look at the several dozen Wattled Jacanas (here of the all-black Panama subspecies) and tight group of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks that were standing around in the marsh. As the light began to dwindle we found a very active grove of fruiting Cercropias beside the wetland. Dozens of Crested and Chestnut-headed Oropendolas were perched in the grove, and it was not long before we found a few 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. Leaving the gathering of Oropendolas behind we headed back to the camp, tired but elated from a fantastic afternoon.

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 90 species of birds! It’s simply impossible to pick a single highlight bird from the mornings cruise, but the undeniable frontrunner must have occurred in the large and colorful mixed flock that we found on a riverbend. Among dozens of Oropendolas, cackling Yellow-rumped Caciques, a stately White-necked Puffbird and a pair of foraging Red-rumped Woodpeckers we found a glorious pair of Golden-green Woodpeckers sitting up in the morning sun. The bright olive body, crimson cap and bold yellow cheek stripe combine for a most pleasing bird. Another excellent find was a singing Rufous-tailed Jacamar that was perched along the river, a glittering study of emerald green and rust. Raptors were well represented, with a couple 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 as well. Grassy marshes along backwaters of the river supported lots of herons including our first Striated (which replace the Green Heron of North from the Darien south through South America), and a few hunting Anhinga. 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. As one might expect from a tropical river trip we frequently encountered Ringed and Amazon Kingfishers perched along the banks. Scanning the trees as we continued upstream on the Tepusi River we picked up quietly sitting Black-tailed Trogon and some foraging Spot-crowned Barbets, as well as some not-so-quiet groups of tanagers which included our first Flame-rumped. Just as we approached our first stop a pair of truly odd Red-throated Caracaras were found perched along the river’s edge. As we approached them the birds uttered their coarse and turkey-like cries that sound so decidedly unfalconlike. The turkey-esque 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.

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 two years 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 Jacamar perched on a tall bare limb above us but we spent a quite productive hour just birding around the margins of the plantation. A pair of Double-banded Graytail were acrobatically clinging to leaves and poking along the leaf clusters in search of prey. This sighting proved to be the only one for the tour of this small furnarid that is restricted to a small corner of Colombia and adjacent Panama. Another species that we located only in this small clearing was White-vented Euphonia, which surprisingly (as it is a widespread bird) was a write-in for the triplist. In the undergrowth of the plantation we found a truly impressive bluish-black tarantula that seemed remarkably unconcerned by nearly a dozen people looming over it. A bit of internet research revealed that the spider likely belonged to the genus Sericopalma, a group that includes the huge Birdeating Tarantulas of South America.

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. The local villagers have recently begun welcoming visiting tourists with a short dance routine performed by a group of young girls. We watched a set of four short dances dedicated to some of the landforms and wildlife of the area. The girls were obviously having fun, and a lot of locals were on hand to watch the performance as well. After the dance routine, we geared up for a walk out to a small oxbow lake in the nearby forest, prepared for some mud and hopefully a few new birds. Once we were into the forest we heard a calling Gray-cheeked Nunlet calling from a section of viny tangles. We spotted the bird tucked into the shade, and soon were enjoying scope views of this small nunbird.  Further down the trail we found a pair of Bare-crowned Antbirds that somewhat furtively bounced around in a trailside thicket. The female actually sat out in the open near the trail for some time, but the handsome male was a bit more circumspect; flashing its bright blue bare skull to only a few participants. Though the species is present across much of Panama they are generally quite difficult to see anywhere other than the Darien. A beautiful male Crimson-crested Woodpecker was a nice find as it hammered on an open palm trunk. While watching the woodpecker and its bright red head flashing in the sun we heard a group of Purple-throated Fruitcrows calling from a nearby tree. Soon we located the birds sitting high over the trail, and were able to watch several males with their brilliant claret-coloured throat ruffs and quivering tails as they jumped around in the mostly open tree.

Eventually we reached the quiet oxbow lake at the end of the trail. Our arrival disturbed a raucous pair of Ringed Kingfishers that flew down the lake uttering their incredibly loud flight calls as they disappeared around the corner. The lead few in the group also briefly glimpsed a foraging Neotropical River Otter that quickly dove under a fallen log, vanishing in a set of silvery ripples. We then carefully walked around the margin of the pond, watching intently for any of the more cryptic waterbirds that often occur here. We were hoping for an array of smaller species of kingfisher, especially the scarce Green-and-Rufous. Instead of kingfishers though we found a remarkable set of herons. The most exciting was likely the adult Agami Heron that we found sitting on the opposite bank. This slim and shy heron is arguably the world’s most attractive heron, and are rarely encountered in Panama (and generally difficult to encounter anywhere in their large range). This bird flew a bit away from us in a flash of purple, burgundy, white and cobalt but luckily for us it did not go too far; remaining visible on a shadowy branch and lingering for scope views. Here too we found a Boat-billed Heron sitting high above the water, with its odd swollen bill and huge eyes clearly visible. A beautiful Capped Heron was here too, although it quickly disappeared; executing a remarkable vanishing trick by simply walking down a high limb and never appearing on the other side. In the still water near the end of the oxbox we heard a mighty splash and saw the tail end of quite a large Spectacled Caiman vanishing under the water. On the walk back we spent a bit of time stalking a Black-faced Antthrush that was picking its way along the edge of the trail, looking like a tiny chicken as it strutted about with a short cocked-up tail. Once back at the village we enjoyed lunch and several participants checked out the assembled selection of woven masks, bowls and plates that the villagers had for sale. Our journey back to the boat dock was quite a bit more rapid, as the dugout canoes progress was considerably sped up by the quite rapid current in the river. While going over the extensive day list after dinner we realized that we had unknowingly comlpeted 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 birds were perched up in the emergent canopy. Here we obtained views of Scaled Pigeons, an attractively marked pigeon with chestnut wings and a heavily patterned breast. Here too we continued our success with the local woodpeckers, with excellent views of Red-rumped, Spot-breasted and Lineated Woodpeckers. We found the local birdlife in the understory to be a bit quiet, perhaps due to the unseasonably high temperature and humidity. Nevertheless, one small mixed flock did cross our path, which contained a placidly sitting Olivaceous Flatbill and our only visible Black Antshrike of the trip. Happily the bird was a female, a striking antbird with a heavily streaked body and bright chestnut wings. 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. Crane and Roadside Hawks were again numerous, and we repeatedly flushed a young Broad-winged Hawk from along the roadside as we walked. A quite cooperative Double-toothed Kite was a nice find as it perched low in a tree fairly close to a small troupe of capuchin monkeys. This is quite a common relationship, as these small forest raptors often follow monkeys around and catch prey disturbed by the actions of the foraging primates. Among the migrating flocks of Turkey Vultures we picked out a few circling King Vultures and a passing Gray-lined Hawk. The best find though was a circling Bicolored Hawk; a widespread but generally scarce species of Accipiter that was a write-in species for the tour.

We reached the banks of the Cuchunaque in the late morning, and spent a quite productive hour in the open car park by the boat ramp. A large fruiting tree here was attracting an array of birds including a very vocal Bright-rumped Attila that largely stayed stubbornly out of view in the canopy and a pretty Rufous-tailed Jacamar that sat out in perfect light for us for quite some time. The thick brush in the center of the clearing held a calling Great Antshrike and several Little Tinamous, both of which slipped up and showed themselves to several participants as they crept around in the thick underbrush. A pair of circling Black Hawk-Eagles lingered for quite some time overhead, repeatedly giving their mournful whistling cries. Just before we started heading back to the lodge for lunch we found another small hive of activity at the back of the clearing. A pair of Golden-green Woodpeckers showed well here, and while we were studying this most attractive of woodpeckers we spotted a striking Yellow-backed Oriole, several Collared Aracaris, and some Crimson-backed Tanagers bouncing around in the same hedge.

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 semi-forested valley where Great Green Macaws often visit in the late afternoon. We set off in a van 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 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. We were delayed a bit by an unexpectedly locked gate, and while waiting for the landowner to come (via horseback) to let us through we were serenaded by some remarkably eloquent cattle and found a lone Wood Stork and several perched Bat Falcons around the pasture. Once we passed through the gate we found another particular point on the road which was particularly bad. With some judicious application of random rocks and sticks into the roadbed the trucks were able to pass, but the combination of delays meant that we arrived in our target area quite a bit later than anticipated. Our hoped-for macaws failed to show, but we did find a nice array of birds including close views of a Tropical Pewee, a shy Chestnut-backed Antbird, a vocal but frustratingly unresponsive Red-billed Scythebill, our first Red-breasted Meadowlarks and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of raucous Red-lored, Mealy and Blue-headed Parrots. As we drove back out of the area we stopped to look at several Fork-tailed Flycatchers that were perched on the low fencelines along the road and also at a passing Lesser Nighthawk that was foraging low over a paddock. We had dinner a little bit early once back at the lodge, in preparation for our all-day journey the next day. Where we planned to venture well to the north of the Pan-American highway by boat in search of Panama’s national bird; the majestic Harpy Eagle at a known and active nest site.

For the 2018 tour we altered the planned itinerary to take advantage of a known active Harpy Eagle nest that was discovered a few months before our visit. With the arrival of a successful ecolodge in the Darien many local communities are now aware that by finding and protecting Eagle nests they can attract visitors from the camp, thus economically benefiting from conservation. This particular nest site was used a few years ago but the nesting pair lost their chick when an adjacent tree fell onto the trunk of the nest tree allowing predatory Capuchin monkeys to access the nest. The local villagers who were following the nest were crestfallen, and after a month or so of no visits by the adult birds decided to remove the offending tree. Nearly two years later the adults came back and soon built a new nest in the same Ceiba tree. The journey in to the nest site from the camp was not straightforward. We departed at the rather jolting hour of 4:30am, using the camps four-wheel drive trucks to drive the roughly hour-long road to Puerto Limon; a dirt boatramp well upstream on the Chucunaque River from where we were birding a few days before. The quite bumpy road was slow going, but we were rewarded by the sight of over a dozen Common Pauraques jumping off the road as we passed. Arriving at the river we were surprised to see how low the water levels were; a testament to the unseasonably dry conditions over much of the Darien. We boarded our two dugout canoes after watching a Common Nighthawk greet the dawn over the canopy and were soon chugging slowly upriver. It took nearly three hours to reach our destination, a small clearing roughly 8 miles up the Chucunaque and then a further 10 miles up the smaller Rio Membrillos. Enroute we were astounded by the number of Greater Anis that were hanging out along the water’s edge (a rough count yielded more than 400 of these glossy and prehistoric looking birds). As is generally the case in the tropics the early morning sun brought out a host of birdlife along the river. Squat and generally cranky-looking Green Ibis were regular sights, and we found several dashing Capped and Cocoi Herons among the throngs of Little Blues and Snowies. At one point our progress was slowed by an overhanging tree, and while we were negotiating our passage underneath the trunk we realized that there was a quite noisy flock of Yellow-rumped Caciques grading our progress. Here too we were thrilled to find three White-fronted Nunbirds, plump blackish birds with a very long and thin bright red bill and white moustaches. This is a scarce species in the lowlands of the Darien, only just crossing into this tiny portion of North America and one that is infrequently encountered away from the foothills immediately adjacent to the Colombian border. The flock also held a Black-striped Woodcreeper; perhaps the most attractively patterned member of this generally subtly plumaged family. Undoubtedly though the highlight of our morning boat trip had to be the male Great Curassow that was sitting on a high branch overhanging the river. This huge pheasant-like cracid is a generally secretive inhabitant of humid tropical forests and is quite rare as it is heavily hunted across most of its range. The male is an impressive beast; jet black with a white vent, a messy curled black crest and a bright yellow knob on its cere. The bird stayed put long enough for us to jockey the boats around for everyone to have a view before it sailed off into thicker woods away from the river. It was heartening to know that such large and often persecuted birds persist despite the widespread clearing along these navigable rivers close to the road system.

In the mid-morning we arrived at the trailhead and met with Alexander, the local who has been following this pair of Harpy Eagles for several years. We enjoyed a snack and some cold drinks and then set off on the roughly mile and a half trail into the nesting area. The trail was muddy at first as we crossed a few small banana plantations but soon dried out as we entered a section of second-growth forest and short undulating hills. We tried hard to concentrate on reaching the eagle, but were distracted a few times by birds such as a cooperative pair of Bare-crowned Antbirds and our first Checker-throated and White-flanked Antwrens. Soon enough though we arrived at the small makeshift clearing (covered with military-style camouflaged netting) near the bottom of the towering Ceiba tree that this pair of Eagles had built their large stick-nest in. These trees have a very tall and straight trunk that is generally higher than the surrounding forest canopy. Once the tree reaches its super-canopy height it sends out an array of branched trunks from a central spot on the main trunk, creating a large and flat platform well above the forest. This is the preferred nesting spot for large forest raptors including Harpy and Crested Eagles as it affords an excellent vantage point and significant isolation from the main forest canopy which is readily accessed by potential predators. When we arrived, we could not see any sign of the (now quite large) chick or either of the parents from the main viewing angle. By walking a bit further down the trail it was possible to see part of the fuzzy chick as it was tucked into the back of the nest. Just before we were starting to worry one of the locals found a narrow viewing angle into the crown of an adjacent Ceiba and was able to find the huge female watching her chick intently from an even higher perch. Few bird species in the world are as evocative as the Harpy.  Standing over three feet tall, and weighing in at almost twenty pounds this huge raptor is often regarded as the largest bird of prey in the world. Their legs are thicker than a human wrist, with talons longer than the claws of an adult Grizzly Bear. Incredibly agile, these huge birds fly through the canopy like giant Accipiters, and are capable of grabbing and carrying prey as large as sloths and monkeys from their perches. We found a couple of other vantage points from which we could see the adult, marveling over her regal crest, huge bill and piercing (and seemingly knowing) yellow eyes. The Darien serves as the stronghold of the species within North America, and although Harpies do occur as far north as southern Mexico they are experiencing a steep population decline through most of central America. Here in the Darien the locals are proud of them, as the species is the national symbol of the country, and many villages are actively protecting birds that they find nearby. The chick stood up several times during our hour-long visit, looking healthy and strong. As it takes an incredible eighteen months to fledge a single chick each individual bird is significant to the overall population. As the morning drew to a close we bid the chick and its mother our best and started back towards the river, with a decided spring in our steps. The trip back gave us a few good birds as well, with lengthy (scope!) views of a tiny Moustached Antwren high up in the canopy, a pair of equally small but much more active Rufous-winged Antwrens in an adjacent tree and a cooperative Long-billed Gnatwren bouncing around in a dense vine tangle over the trail. We also finally laid eyes on a Cinnamon Woodpecker, a bird that we had been only hearing daily to this point. Like all members of the genus Celeus it is an attractive bird, rich chestnut-brown with a tall bushy crest and bright red malar stripe.

Back at the riverbank we enjoyed a well-eared lunch and some more cold drinks, while watching a steady trickle of migrating Turkey Vultures (and some passing Swainson’s Hawks and King Vultures) passing overhead. The trip back to our waiting cars was quite pleasant, with lots of Kingfishers and herons to look at and Spectacled Caiman pulled out on the riverbanks. One particularly welcome find was a sleeping Great Potoo sitting high up in a tree, looking virtually identical to the tree bark. One of the canoes also encountered a passing Collared Forest-Falcon that crossed the river just in front of the bow, and some lucky folk caught sight of a Neotropic River Otter chewing on the remains of a recently captured fish. Back at the pull-out at Puerto Limon we watched with a bit of amusement as the locals loaded huge piles of plantains onto some waiting pickups. The trucks were sitting in rather deep mud, and once heavily burdened with fruit quickly dug themselves in. Quite a crowd was gathered watching as various ropes were used as tow ropes, but by the time of our departure one of the trucks was thoroughly stuck.  We drove back to the highway riding in the open-backed trucks, which enabled us to spot a couple of Solitary Sandpipers and several Red-breasted Meadowlarks in the rice fields, our first American Kestrels and a locally scarce Aplomado Falcon in trees out in the pastures, and a truly impressive number of Red-lored Parrots and Yellow-headed Caracaras flying to their roost sights against the setting sun. It was indeed a long day in the field, but a magnificent one; widely quoted as the highlight of the trip during our final dinner reminiscing.

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. After checking in with the landowners we drove up to the end of the road at a small quarry tucked into the hillside and surrounded by forest. Around the clearing we tracked down a calling Broad-billed Motmot, found a quietly sitting Barred Puffbird (oddly our only sighting of this species for the trip), admired a quite active Tropical Pewee and watched in admiration as a pair of ethereal White Hawks circled in the blue sky overhead. A bit further back down the road we found a small mixed flock that eventually revealed a Yellow-green Tyrannulet (one of the twelve species endemic to Panama, although admittedly not one of the flashier members of the group) as well as a briefly perched Blue Ground-Dove, several Lesser Greenlets and a quite showy Cinnamon Becard. Once back at the base of the hill we were treated to a quick view of a hunting Tayra (a large and colourful weasel relative) that crossed the road in front of the group and instantly vanished into the forest. Most of the group then crossed the shallow rock creek and walked up the occasionally steep trail that winds further up into the mountains. Despite arriving mid-morning there was still a lot of activity along the trail. A little group of Dot-winged Antwrens were in full display mode, with the trio of black males flashing their bright white back patches and quivering their wings and tails at a female that seemed largely disinterested in their efforts. A distant calling Wing-banded Antbird failed to descend down to the trail for us to look at, but the perched adult King Vulture that was sitting at eye-level only a few feet off the trail provided considerable consolation. At the top of the trail we paused to look at an array of well-camouflaged frogs that were hopping about in the dense leaf litter and were thrilled when a male Red-capped Manakin shot into view in a burst of scarlet and black. Soon after spotting the manakin it began to lightly rain and we elected to head back to the van. Those few participants that had lingered back on the road were quite happy as well, as a Crab-eating Fox had showed well along the roadside while we were up the trail. Once out along the highway again we stopped to look at a perched Pearl Kite along the road. These tiny and colourful raptors are spreading into Panama from South America along with the clearing of the pacific lowlands for cattle pastures. They’re pleasing little birds, with a palette of white, yellow, black and rust and bear a striking resemblance to the falconets of Asia.

After lunch back in Torti where we again enjoyed a good show from the local hummingbirds and tanagers 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 Bridge that spans the Bayano Lake.

Here we walked down to the lakeshore and successfully located both Great Blue and Cocoi Herons sitting along the shore – one of the few places in the world where this combination is possible.  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 Prothonotary Warbler, several agitated Yellow Warblers and a few Bay-breasted Warblers. Some nice resident birds were about as well, and we especially enjoyed the pair of handsome Red-legged Honeycreepers and male Ruddy-breasted Seedeater. As it was the heat of the afternoon we found the area to be relatively quiet though, so we soon continued on to our hotel near the Panama City airport. That night we celebrated, reminiscing about the tour highlights (with Black Oropendola, Harpy Eagle, displaying Manakins and the Great Curassow 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: 07 December 2018