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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Panama: Darién Lowlands

2021 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’s 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, Cocoa Woodpeckers, Whooping Motmots and a bubbling flock of Chestnut-headed Oropendolas that were happily denuding the camp of bananas. 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 male, an incredible three species of Macaws (including the critically endangered Great Green) a dazzling Blue Cotinga gleaming from the treetops, Black Antshrikes lurking in the undergrowth, Spot-breasted and Golden-green Woodpeckers working trees just overhead, three Dusky-backed Jacamars 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 daily encounters with Geoffrey’s Tamarin, White-faced Capuchin and Mantled Howler Monkey and a nocturnal encounter with Central American Wooly Opossum and Crab-eating Raccoon. 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: Normally we would have started off the 2021 WINGS visit to the Canopy Camp Darien with a visit to the rolling ridges along the continental divide in Nusagandi. Unfortunately for us, one local victim of the pandemic was the road up into the hills, which this year was pot-holed and washed out to a degree that our vehicle had no chance of getting up it due to lack of road maintenance. In speaking to some local guides who had made the trip up recently we also discovered that the normal trail that we take had disintegrated in the recent heavy rains, making our target, the enigmatic Sapayoa a virtual impossibility. We came up with a plan B, which was to bird the area of forest just past Lake Bayano in the morning and then continue on to the camp, arriving in time to bird around the grounds in the afternoon. Our first stop was just past the Lake Bayano Bridge. Extensive forests surround the lake, which lies largely within the domain of the Guna Yala indigenous comarca. A light drizzle was falling as we exited the van, but it tapered off soon after we walked down to the boat launch area. Here we found the lake to be surprisingly low, with lots of exposed and weedy shoreline. Scanning the edge of the water we picked out Striated and Cocoi Herons, and sitting right out in front on the edge of a wooden boat was a very handsome young Bare-throated Tiger-Heron which seemed utterly oblivious to our presence. In the trees around the boat launch we coaxed up a pair of Buff-breasted Wrens from their weedy haunts and enjoyed a small mixed flock containing a female Golden-collared Manakin, a Yellow-margined Flycatcher and a few Yellow and Prothonotary Warblers. Seeding grasses held our first Variable Seedeaters and Thick-billed Seed-Finch, and out on a small island in the lake we scoped some Neotropic Cormorants, a sunning Anhinga and perched Ringed Kingfisher.

Our second stop was at the Rio Mono Bridge, a short bridge that spans a nicely forested creek, with the tree canopy close to eye-level from the bridge span. This is often a very birdy place in the morning, but annoyingly we found it to be raining (the only actual rain we experienced over the first 3 days of the trip). Despite the weather we turned up a Crimson-crested Woodpecker that was hammering away on a distant tree, as well as a perched Acadian Flycatcher and a male Violet-bellied Hummingbird. We didn’t tarry too long, and soon were heading further east on the Pan-American Highway, arriving in the small town of Torti in the late morning. Here at a roadside café we found several hummingbird and fruit feeders and some large trees making for some excellent birding while we enjoyed our pre-ordered cooked lunches. The hummingbird feeders were slow, with a single Scaly-breasted Hummingbird chasing away all other comers while we were there. Around the gardens though we tracked down male and female Black-throated Mangos, perched Snowy-bellied Hummingbirds, and a dazzling male Sapphire-throated Hummingbird. 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 yelling Boat-billed Flycatcher was fairly easy to locate on its high exposed perch. Fruit feeders just off the deck were attracting a remarkable number of Blue-gray Tanagers, Bananaquits, and Clay-coloured Thrushes, as well as the occasional Baltimore Oriole, Summer Tanager or Blue Dacnis.

After lunch, we made the final hour and a half drive into Darien province, stopping to take photos of the state border signs as we passed. We arrived at the camp in the mid-afternoon, with time to bird the lodge grounds after we settled in. The clearing around the camp has been liberally stocked with hummingbird-friendly plants, and in addition to those flowers the camp staff maintain a dozen feeders placed all around the dining area. These feeders, especially those in the shade by the rocking chairs, were being rapidly drained by a horde of hungry hummingbirds. Likely the most common species here were Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, White-vented Plumeleteer and White-necked Jacobin. By staking out the feeders and flowering Porterweeds though we also noted our first Blue-chested Hummingbirds and Pale-bellied Hermits, and had excellent views at just the right angle to fully enjoy the dazzling colours on male Sapphire-throated Hummingbirds and Long-billed Starthroat. Several fruit feeder platforms have been artfully arranged around the dining area as well, and these were attracting a steady stream of Chestnut-headed Oropendolas as well as hungry Geoffrey’s Tamarins and the occasional White-faced Capuchin. Perhaps the best find right around the dining area was a pair of Golden-headed Manakins that were gleaning fruit from a small bush out in the middle of the clearing. The male is an especially handsome bird; with a jet-black body and throat, white eyes, and golden-yellow helmet. A short stroll back down the entrance road revealed a couple of Collared Aracaris, a pair of Roadside Hawks above the trail, and a furtive White-bellied Antbird that spent quite some time toying with us as it bounced around in the dense understory. A pair of Grey-cheeked Nunlet, a range restricted species found in the Darien and adjacent Colombia were much more confiding as they lingered under the canopy for long enough for the entire group to study the delicate apricot wash across their chests.

The weather seemed warm and friendly, so we decided to have an early dinner and then offer a nocturnal drive down a nearby road in search of nightbirds. It was a new road for us to try, and although I was hoping for one or two species it’s always hard to predict just how an owling expedition will go. It proved simply spectacular. Before we even arrived at the main road we had found a Mottled Owl perched remarkably low along the road. The bird remained on its perch for quite some time, despite the torchlight, all of the people shuffling around on the road for the best angle, and a full-on fiesta at a nearby farmhouse. Once on the side road we quickly spotted some languidly moving Brown-throated Three-toed Sloths and two Common Opossums in trees along the road edge. A bit further down the road we spotted some distant eyeshine, which proved to be a Common Pauraque, and while we had it in the beams of our torches a Striped Owl flew in and landed in the spotlight; like a debutant actor aching to be center stage. In the next field we found a Common Potoo perched up on a post, and shortly thereafter another Striped Owl; this one right on the road edge and posing for us. Some playback for Tropical Screech-Owl worked its magic and soon we were enjoying quite close views of this small owl as it chuckled back at us in an indignant fashion. We started back to the camp, already really elated by how the evening had unfolded, but the night had one more surprise in store for us. A pair of Black-and-White Owls performed extremely well, coming right to the road and perching just overhead. These very attractive large owls sport barred chests, orange feet and bills and a well differentiated black crown, making them look a bit like a Barred Owl that was done up for an especially glamorous night on the town. With an amazing four species of owls seen extremely well, plus Pauraque, and Common Potoo it was simply one of the best owling trips that I have ever done in the tropics.

The next day we journeyed a bit to the 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, small clearings and a few teak plantations. We stopped at a random spot along the road where a nice mixture of native forest, scrub and teak made for a diverse looking flora. It proved to be an excellent spot, as within just a minute or so of getting out the bus we were staring at a good-sized mixed flock. A calling Black Antshrike drew us over first, and we soon enjoyed excellent views of the all-black male and quite fancy brown and black female as they called from some overhead vines. This is another species with a very small range, limited to the Darien and adjacent Colombia. Here too we found a cooperative pair of Black-crowned Antshrikes, a very showy Plain Xenops, a flashy Black-tailed Flycatcher and a pair of Black-bellied Wrens that were clambering around in the midstory, flashing their bright white throats. On the forest floor below the flock we heard the thin calls of a Bare-crowned Antbird, and with a little bit of patience were able to spot them not too far into the underbrush. It took a bit of time before all of the participants managed a view, but eventually we had the female actually sitting on a bare branch and calling. The flashy male was a bit more circumspect; but most saw its bright blue bare skull gleaming from the shadows as well. Though the species is present across much of Panama they are generally quite difficult to see anywhere other than the Darien, although even here they often stay back in the depths of undergrowth tangles. We continued our streak of antbirds with a wonderful Moustached Antwren that lingered in view for quite a while, even staying still enough for us to get some photographs and scope views. This tiny and short-tailed species of Antwren typically sings from dense leaves high up in the canopy, and our views of this particular bird were easily among the best that I have ever had in Panama.

A little further down the road we again met with a large mixed flock, this time with more canopy-oriented species. A very feisty pair of Red-rumped Woodpeckers were busily chasing around in the canopy, eventually settling down so that we could see them in the scopes. Nearby we spotted a male Golden-green Woodpecker in the same tree. This species, with its bright olive body, crimson cap and bold yellow cheek stripe is quite an attractive bird, although its harsh screaming calls don’t seem to jive well with its elegant attire. Here too was a trio of Cinnamon Woodpeckers, which showed quite well, as did a pair of Black-tailed Trogons, White-winged and Cinnamon Becards, a quietly perched White-necked Puffbird and a dazzling Great Jacamar. The Jacamar was well received, as it is a boldly coloured and charismatic species that we do not see every year in the Darien. The flock contained quite a few tanagers as well, with a group of busy White-shouldered Tanagers, several brightly marked Golden-hooded Tanagers and a very cooperative pair of Blue Dacnis. While watching the Dacnis forage overhead we noticed a pair of White-eared Conebills feeding nearby, yet another eastern Panama specialty. Of course, no large mixed flock in the neotropics can be completely devoid of flycatchers, and in this one we managed exceptionally good views of Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant (a species that is often touted as the worlds’ smallest passerine), several more Yellow-margined Flycatchers, a Forest Elaenia and a Brown-capped Tyrannulet that seemed to be gathering nesting material. While watching the flock we were often distracted by birds flying over the road, and over the course of the morning our raptor list swelled with some mouthwatering additions like the young Ornate Hawk-Eagle that circled overhead for several minutes, or the brilliant adult King Vulture that drifted through. Add in passing Chestnut-fronted Macaws, lots of Blue-headed and Red-lored Parrots and even a soaring Magnificent Frigatebird and it seemed that the sky virtually always held something interesting. In fact, the two large flocks and steady stream of other birds along the road kept us so busy that before we knew it the morning was over. We didn’t get anywhere near the Chucunaque River, which we normally reach in the late morning; a sure sign that we had a great morning!

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 made several stops before we reached the end of the road at the town of Yaviza, which now hosts almost 5000 inhabitants, and seems to get just a little busier every year. In general, we found the normally water-filled fields and small marshes to be remarkably dry this year; a testament to the overall lack of rain during the traditional wet season. At a customary spot where we generally easily find Donacobius and at least hear White-throated Crake both species were absent, though a Limpkin, and a few Wattled Jacana (here of the all-black form endemic to eastern Panama and adjacent Colombia) were still about, and we certainly enjoyed our very close views of the excellent Spot-breasted Woodpecker that perched up on some bare branches not too far off the road. This species is certainly a candidate for most attractive new world woodpecker and 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. Perched up just next to the woodpecker was a singing Striped Cuckoo, that lingered on its exposed perch for well over 15 minutes steadily calling. Here too we worked on the identification criteria of three similar flycatchers, with Greater and Lesser Kiskadee and Rusty-margined Flycatchers all present for good comparison. Little flocks of Smooth-billed and Greater Anis, the latter shimmering blue in the afternoon sun dotted the fields, and in some seeding grasses we located a few handsome male Ruddy-breasted Seedeaters among the more common Blue-black Grassquits and Variable Seedeaters. Some of the Variable Seedeaters were quite interesting, with full black breast bands, white throats and a half collar that made them quite different to the males that are found in central and western Panama; variable indeed!

We reached the forested patch of road that borders the Chucunaque River just as the skies darkened and became a bit blustery. It never rained, but the very dark conditions made the mid-afternoon feel like dusk and bird activity was extremely limited. We did manage to locate a hulking Barred Puffbird, a large and showy species with a baleful yellow eye that is generally limited to the Darien in North America. Once at the end of the road we took the obligatory photos of the roadside advertising the roughly 12000 KM trip north to Alaska and then spent some time birding around the Yaviza Cemetery, which sits up on a hill right on the banks of the river. By the time we got there the skies had truly darkened though, and only a few participants were able to spot the hoped-for Bicolored Wren before it popped into its bulky nest in advance of the presumed coming storm. Taking our cues from the local birdlife we decided to head back as well, making a couple of quick stops as we made our way back to the camp. At one we located two Limpkins perched up on shrubs in a roadside marsh. Another stop revealed an adult Rufescent Tiger-Heron standing upright on a small soccer pitch, like an overly colourful Bittern who had misplaced its reedbed. Buoyed with our success over the first full day of the trip we made it back to the camp for a slightly early dinner and a night’s sleep in our comfortable tents, surrounded by the sounds of the forest (and for some, the sounds of calling Mottled Owls).

The next day of the trip was reserved for penetrating more deeply east into the Darien in search of Panama’s national bird; the regal, if not downright imposing, Harpy Eagle. 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 system has been working quite well, and for the last few years there have generally been multiple Harpy Eagle nests known to the camp guides that visiting birds are allowed access to. As the nesting period for a pair takes an amazing eighteen months these nests can stay viable for quite some time, bringing in much needed money to local communities. Occasionally the nest of a Crested Eagle, which is only slightly smaller than the Harpy, and generally much harder to find is also available.

The most accessible nest this year was in a new part of the Darien for us; much closer to the pacific coast and on the east (Colombian) side of the Rio Tuquesa. The local chief of the nearby village had contacted the camp only a month prior to our visit, and with some financial and logistical support from the canopy family a trail had been constructed from the river up to the nest site. We headed out early from the camp, driving through the mountains behind the camp and over towards Puerto Quimba. A new looking dirt road took off to the south, leading through quite a lot of mixed forest and cleared ranchlands, eventually depositing us on the banks of the Tuquesa across from the little town of Chepigana, and just a bit upstream from where its broad and convoluted delta empties into the Pacific. We made good time and arrived a bit before our boatman did. This gave us some time to organize our footgear and life jackets, and to do a bit of birding around the clearing at the end of the road where we were happy to spot White Ibis and Yellow-crowned Night-Herons foraging on the muddy riverbanks, found a locally scarce Olivaceous Woodcreeper on a trunk just above our parked car, and located a calling Pied Puffbird along the forest edge. After a short delay the boat arrived and soon we were off on our little Darien adventure. Our roughly one-hour ride across the Tuquesa and then up the much smaller La Merea River passed through a fully tidal region, with lots of small mangroves along the creek, and a host of birds more closely associated with estuarine environments. Lots of Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, White Ibis, Little Blue Herons and Neotropic Cormorants punctuated the ride, with a few small flocks of Whimbrel and the odd Spotted Sandpiper along as well. High snags along the creek played host to the occasional Bat Falcon, and little bubbling flocks of Greater Anis plied the vegetated coves.

By mid-morning we landed at a small bend in the river that gives locals access to a semi-cleared agricultural forest where crops of cacao, banana and coffee have been planted in the understory. We were met by members of the local community and soon were ushered along the quite muddy trail, happy to have the network of boards and railings that were recently installed. While navigating this trail we were amazed to watch the local children, many as young as 5 or 6, effortlessly carrying the coolers containing our lunches through the muck while shoeless. In a few minutes we reached a second clearing, this time around an elevated wooden house. Here we staged for the main part of the walk, and after a round of drinks we headed off further away from the river, roughly paralleling a small, forested creek. After about a half-mile the trail climbed a hill, thankfully much improved with the installation of paving stone steps and rope railings. The hill was steep, but not too long and just over the crest we were soon in position to view the large nest nestled in the crown of a Cuipo tree. 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. By virtue of our ridgetop angle the nest was just few degrees above our eye-level, making observations and photography quite easy. To our delight the adult male was present a few feet off the nest platform when we arrived, standing on a prey item that it was intent on dismembering. 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. Eastern Panama 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 throughout 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. After watching the adult for some time it dawned on us that the chick (which had been readily visible a few days prior to our visit) was not apparent in the nest. Some closer scrutiny of the adult male and its prey revealed to us a somewhat grisly scene. It would appear that the three or four-month old chick had died and the adult was busily eating the corpse. This scene dampened our enthusiasm a bit, but it was a biologically fascinating thing to witness. Some literature searching revealed many cases of adult raptors consuming recently deceased chicks but I could find no direct mention of this behavior in Harpy Eagles. Apparently, this pair of birds only recently formed in the area, and this may have been their first chick. Hopefully the birds will take a few months off and then make another attempt.

As the morning drew to a close we started back towards the river, making our way back to the clearing where we enjoyed a somewhat late lunch. The walk back out was more leisurely than our trek into the nest area, and we stopped repeatedly whenever bird activity seemed to warrant it. Probably the best find during the walk back was a tiny Stripe-throated Hermit that was sitting low in the understory and singing away at a lek site. A small mixed flock appeared a little later, allowing a few more participants to spot their first Chestnut-backed Antbird and White-flanked Antwrens. Once back at the clearing we were distracted by some small fruiting bushes on the edge of the forest that were attracting a nice array of birds, including our only Fulvous-vented Euphonias and Shining Honeycreepers of the trip. Here too was a vocal and (eventually) cooperative family group of Purple-throated Fruitcrow. This is a large and quite social species of Cotinga, jet-black except for the namesake (actually vinous-coloured) throat of the males. Unlike most species in the family they are quite vocal and active in the canopy, landing with quivering tails and a series of expressive quarks. Luckily for us the male repeatedly landed at a good angle for us to really appreciate the intensity of the colour on the throat, which is actually vinous or claret toned rather than the more generic purple that its name would suggest. We ate lunch with the locals and then made our way back out to the main river, many with newly acquired native handicrafts in tow. Our boat ride back was much quicker than the way in, due to the favorable tides, and apart from marveling at the rather odd sight of flocks of Whimbrel sitting up in trees and all too brief flyover from a Blue-and-Yellow Macaw was quite uneventful.

For the rest of the afternoon we birded our way back along the dirt Rio Iglesias Road, where we encountered a surprising diversity of birds. What we thought would be a quick stop to look at a small flock of Gray-headed Chachalacas that were bouncing around in some fruiting palm trees turned into a forty-minute birdathon, with a host of large frugivores popping up in all directions. Black-chested Jays showed very well here, as did Crested and Black Oropendola, Red-lored and Blue-headed Parrot, Lineated Woodpecker and Keel-billed Toucan. The Black Oropendola is particularly attractive, with a maroon back, pink bill base and tip, and bright blue and red facial wattles. They are restricted to a small area of the Darien and adjacent Colombia and are truly a Canopy Camp specialty, and perhaps the most attractive species of Oropendola to boot. A little bit further down the road we stopped to get a scope view of a perched Plain-breasted Ground-Dove that had conveniently landed along the road edge. While out of the truck we heard some rustling in some nearby shrubs and a quick check revealed a Gray-cowled Wood-Rail quietly walking along the branches at about eye-level! We also located a large mixed flock, which kept us well occupied for about an hour as the birds busily foraged along the roadside trees. It’s always difficult to pick out highlights from such diverse groups of birds, but a few of the more memorable finds from the flock would have to include eye-level views of Yellow-breasted Flycatcher, a very responsive Rufous-tailed Jacamar perched below the road and shining like a little emerald and rust beacon from the shadows, Black-crowned and Masked Tityras overhead in a flowering tree, Buff-breasted Wrens clambering around in the vine tangles and a very photogenic Plain Xenops investigating dangling clusters of dead leaves. After plumbing the depths of this flock we headed back to the camp, arriving in the early evening a trifle muddy but elated from what was truly an exceptional day out in the field.

As our previous afternoon trip to the end of the Pan-American highway had been impacted by heavy cloud cover we decided to return to Yaviza in the morning in search of a few very local specialties that frequent the area. This proved an excellent decision, as this time, with vastly more favorable weather we were quite successful in our quest. Our first stop was along the banks of the Chucanaque River a few miles shy of Yaviza. Here, during the pandemic shutdown the local camp guides had located a family group of Dusky-backed Jacamars. This small and swarthy Jacamar has an extremely limited world range (like several other species in the Darien) and is quite poorly known. It didn’t take us long to track down three individuals perched along a bare branch near the riverbank. At the small cemetery in Yaviza, which lies on a small hill adjacent to the Chucanaque River we were vastly more successful with our chief target; Bicoloured Wren, a large wren native to adjacent Colombia and Venezuela that was discovered here only in 2014, with sightings continuing in the intervening years. It’s an attractive, brash and large species, brown-backed and crowned, with a bold eyeline and whitish-cream underparts. After a half-hour or so of ogling the wren and trying to track down a calling Spectacled Parrotlet (that unfortunately took off from its chosen perch and rocketed away overhead without really showing to the group) we decided to start making our way back towards the camp. At a traditionally productive bend in the road that still has some native forest we teased out a remarkably cooperative Red-billed Scythebill. Usually this rather furtive species zips by and then stubbornly remains deep in denser foliage, but this individual showed well and out on open trunks, allowing us to really soak in its incredibly fine curved bill. Here too we were happy to find a pair of Orange-crowned Orioles (yet another Darien specialty) perched up in a high bare tree. As we headed along the road we stopped at a few likely looking small marshes and were eventually successful at tracking down a trio of Black-capped Donacobius that obligingly came right up to the road to cackle away at us from atop a large bunch of seeding grasses. 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. A few more roadside stops revealed some showy Red-breasted Meadowlarks out in a cattle pasture, a Solitary Sandpiper at a small puddle inside a soccer goal, a perched Pearl Kite atop a roadside tree and (with an amazing spot by our local leader Moyo) a quietly sitting Great Potoo, nearly perfectly camouflaged against its chosen twisted trunk. We had a bit of time around the camp in the late morning and early afternoon, which we used to great effect, finally catching up with a White-headed Wren above one of the cabins and again enjoying a visit to the flowering porterweeds by the young male Rufous-crested Coquette that many participants had seen on the first afternoon at the camp.

Later that afternoon we again set off down the Pan American highway, this time bound for a private valley to the south of the road owned by a local rice growing company. The camp guides have special permission to bird the edges of the property; a sprawling complex of open fields, rice paddies, forest patches and forested foothills. It was a new spot for our WINGS tours but given our success I suspect it will become a regular feature for us in the future. The wet rice fields were supporting large flocks of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Smooth-billed Ani and Wattled Jacana. While scanning the fields we picked out a perched Great Black-Hawk sitting atop a palm stump and a Ringed Kingfisher along a low fenceline. Shrubby patches along the road were holding several small flocks, and while working through groups of Crimson-backed and Blue-gray Tanagers we picked out wintering Mourning Warbler and Baltimore Oriole, our only Yellow-bellied Seedeater of the trip and a displaying Blue-black Grassquit that was doing its customary sky hop display. As the afternoon progressed we began to notice large numbers of Orange-chinned Parakeet and Blue-headed and Red-lored Parrots flying off to their evening roost sites. This prompted us to find a higher vantage point from which to scan the skies and forest edge. The scanning soon paid off when we located a male Blue Cotinga which simply shone like a blue and purple beacon in the scopes. A low-flying dark morph Short-tailed Hawk showed well here too, and we spent some time watching the antics of a large troupe of Mantled Howler Monkeys that were languidly draped around a large tree canopy. About a half-hour into our vigil we picked out the unmistakable form of a very distant perched Blue-and-Yellow Macaw. This very attractive and large parrot has disappeared from much of its former range due to pressures from bird trappers. In the caged bird trade individual birds can command prices in the thousands of dollars; a very attractive sum for enterprising locals. Our sighting the previous day of a fly-over bird not too far from the Harpy Nest was a write in for our Panama WINGS tours, but it was nice to see a perched (albeit distant) bird as well. While we studied the distant yellow and blue blob in the scope some scanning of the skies revealed another pair of Macaws in flight and heading towards us. We scrambled to get everyone onto the distant dots, but happily they continued getting closer and passed us by at a reasonable distance; close enough for us to see the all-green bodies and red foreheads that marked them as Great Green Macaws. This large and critically endangered Macaw persists in only a few small populations from Nicaragua to Colombia, with another subspecies occurring in two small parts of coastal Ecuador. Global estimates put the total population at only around 4000 birds, with 2500 of those in the Darien and adjacent parts of Colombia. Elated with our sighting we drove out of the property with only a few minutes to spare before they locked the gates (although our stop to admire the huge swarm of Yellow-headed Caracaras that were devouring palm fruits from a stand of Oil Palms did add a bit to our tardiness).

Our last full day around the Darien 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 left the camp early, heading down the road to the boat launch at La Penita. Our sturdy boats (remarkably long dugout canoes with low wooden chairs) are owned and organized by the villagers of Nuevo Vigia (our destination for the morning) who also maintain the trail network into the forest that we use for birding, and offer assorted handicrafts, and often a short native dance performance for their visitors. The roughly forty-minute ride upstream was punctuated with a few birds, including a perched Crane Hawk (here of the all-black morph that dominates in the Darien) two Gray-headed Kites, Mangrove and Southern Rough-winged Swallows hawking insects over the river, little groups of Greater Anis cackling away from the riparian brush, several perched Amazon Kingfishers and, unfortunately a fairly significant amount of rain. Remarkably, this was the only real rain that we experienced during the week in the Darien (and in fact during all three 2021 fall Panama tours), although if one were to pick when during the trip a rain event would be most annoying, I would wager that during a ride in an open dugout canoe might come up as a viable option. The rains tapered off shortly after we reached the village of Nuevo Vigia, and by the end of our time there we were basically fully dried out. With the end of the rains the local birdlife became much more active, and during our walk out from the village we found the birding to be excellent. The forest here is short, with a fairly open understory and a significant number of vines in the midstory. It’s an environment that lends itself to easy birding, with small flocks often foraging along the trail, and larger birds often visible in the distant trees. Our main destination was a small oxbow lake tucked into the forest; a location that has an excellent track record of producing some of the rarer herons and kingfishers in the area. Although the lake is less than a mile from the village the walk out took us quite some time, with frequent stops for birds. This year the locals had built out a new trail into the forest that avoided an often-soupy marsh, instead taking a route along the village road that is only passable during the peak of the dry season. This cleared forest edge was quite busy with birds, including a male Golden-green Woodpecker, two Red-eyed Vireos, a surprise Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher (which is a scarce migrant through Panama, and vastly outnumbered by the very similar Streaked Flycatcher) and a White-throated Crake that stubbornly refused to cross the trail, despite coming right up to the edge for us and vigorously calling back to our tape. Nearby we studied a perched Gray-capped Flycatcher, the last of the roughly half-dozen species likely kiskadee-like flycatchers in the area. Once in the woods our attentions were diverted to the understory, where we successfully tracked down a pair of calling Dusky Antbirds and less successfully tracked down a very furtive White-bellied Antbird. A little mixed flock in a forest clearing contained a responsive Streaked Xenops, a little encountered species in Panama, as well as a pair of tiny White-vented Euphonia and a perched Long-tailed Tyrant. It took us quite a while but we eventually pinned down the calling Southern Bentbill that was zipping around in some thick vines; a most satisfying sighting after hearing this unobtrusive species daily. As we neared the oxbow lake we stopped to admire some perched Scaled Pigeons in the canopy, and a flashy Black-tailed Flycatcher (now no longer placed in the tyrant flycatcher family) in the understory.

Eventually we reached the quiet oxbow lake at the end of the trail. Our arrival disturbed a raucous Rufescent Tiger-Heron that flew down the lake uttering some incredibly deep and guttural flight calls as it disappeared around the corner. We then carefully walked around the margin of the pond, watching intently for any of the more cryptic waterbirds that often occur here. Our good luck held, with close-range scope views of two different American Pygmy-Kingfishers, and a male Green-and-Rufous Kingfisher, which is generally regarded as the most difficult new world Kingfisher to see well. We were also happy to find a sitting Boat-billed Heron that was sleeping high above the water, looking a bit like a grumpy garden gnome peering down from its leafy bower. The understory around the lake was hosting a frenetic Golden-collared Manakin lek, with several dazzling males jumping around from perch to perch with the arrival of a comparatively duller female. While we were watching the show an upslurred callnote announced the proximity of a Royal Flycatcher, and with a bit of judicious playback we were soon watching this handsome bird as it briefly sat in the mid canopy. As is usual the bird refused to display its incredible purple and orange sideways-facing crest for us, and it soon zipped off its perch and disappeared in a flash of orangey-buff. The lake also held a couple of interesting reptiles, with several small Common Basilisk Lizards sitting around the margin of the water, and even occasionally running across to the safety of some distant thicket and, at the far end of the oxbox we found a loafing Spectacled Caiman doing an excellent impression of a floating log, likely curtailing any thought of us going for a quick swim.

The walk back to the village was productive, with excellent views of a placidly perched male Spotted Antbird, surely a candidate species for the antbird beauty pageant, showing extremely well. A small mixed flock of mostly migrant birds kept us busy for a short while, with a female Golden-winged Warbler being particularly well appreciated. Once back at the village clearing we stopped to admire a large mixed flock of Oropendolas that contained lots of Crested and Chestnut-headed and a couple of beautiful Blacks as well. Once we reached the main village community hut we enjoyed a hearty snack of sandwiches, banana bread and cold drinks, and then did a bit of Christmas shopping for local handwoven handicrafts before boarding the boats and heading back to La Penita. The cruise back was much drier than the trip out, but didn’t reveal too many new birds, with the exception of a pair of Buff-throated Saltators, and an all too brief (for the front boat at least) flyover from a Capped Heron.

Once back at the camp we enjoyed a late lunch and a bit of a rest around the grounds before heading out for a late afternoon visit to the nearby Camino a Lajas Blancas. This short road leads from the highway out to the banks of the Chucanaque River, passing through mostly disturbed agricultural fields and teak plantations. At the road terminus we witnessed a more cultural scene. Panama has, for well over a decade, been on the receiving end of a trail of immigrants who seek passage from Haiti and parts of Africa to Brazil and then travel overland to Colombia before buying passage on small boats to Panama’s northern Darien coast. They then have to cross the Tarcarcuna mountains and navigate passage on small boats to ports with road access to the Pan American highway, like this location at the Lajas Blancas Road. Conditions for these people are harsh, and few arrive here with a lot of resources still in their possession. International aid groups have now established some shelters and tents, as well as basic medical care and help with food and sanitation in place near the boat ramp. The Panamanian border police are here too, monitoring the area and organizing the refugees until they are transported away (some are sent home and others moved on to the Costa Rica border in quite modern looking coaches). It’s an interesting scene to witness, and although the refugees are certainly in fairly dire straits they seemed in good spirits and health generally. On the birding front we again heard but were unable to track down a calling Spectacled Parrotlet that was perched somewhere on the opposite bank of the river. A Southern Beardless Tyrannulet was more confining on our bank though, as was a pair of Cinnamon Becards that were busily gathering nesting material for their bulky nest. Near the end of the road we also enjoyed excellent views of a flying and briefly perched Collared Forest-Falcon and an array of more common open-country species. We then headed back to the camp with some time set aside to pack up and savour our final dinner, as we planned an early start the next morning for our trip back towards Panama City.

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 parked a little shy of the woods, near a small reservoir used for irrigating the adjacent fields. Here we birded the edge of the woods, spotting a perched Tropical Pewee that was virtually directly above our parked van and a couple of Rufous-breasted Hermits that seemed intent on chasing each other back to Colombia. Almost as soon as we entered the woods we were greeted by a welcoming party foraging around in the canopy. The chief prize in this first mixed flock was undoubtedly the pair of Yellow-green Tyrannulets that remained out in the open for quite some time (rather than quickly vanishing into the canopy). This rather unremarkable looking flycatcher is endemic to Panama, occurring from the Canal zone to roughly the base of the Darien highlands. They are generally found in the company of mixed species flocks, and tend to stay high up in the canopy, providing only partial views as they forage among the leaves. This pair was far more cooperative, with one bird remaining still for well over a minute; providing us ample opportunity to soak in its overall lack of useful fieldmarks. An Orange-crowned Sparrow, perhaps the most attractive member of the new world sparrow family was a nice find as it crept along some low branches near the creek. The canopy flock also held a few Lesser Greenlets, a pair of White-browed Gnatcatchers, a perched male Black-throated Trogon and two pairs of busy little White-eared Conebills. Although the cleared area just a bit up the road seemed a bit quiet we did pick up a calling male Blue Ground-Dove (and his prospective mate) sitting in an open Cercropia tree and a very vocal and unusually obvious group of Bay Wrens bouncing around the road edge.

Most of the group elected to walk up the sometimes steep (but thankfully not muddy this year) dirt road that winds back into the hills, paralleling the small rocky creek and passing through some excellent forest. This proved very productive, with a few mixed flocks bringing us our first Checker-throated Stipplethroat (AKA Checker-throated Antwren), Dot-winged and Rusty-winged Antwrens, Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher, Long-billed Gnatwren, Wedge-billed Woodcreeper and Fasciated Antshrike. Several people managed to spot a furtive Black-faced Antrthrush as it strolled through the undergrowth with its characteristic cocked up tail. We were less successful in spotting a calling Wing-banded Antbird that came frustratingly close to the trail before ceasing its ringing calls and evaporating. No doubt we are all on the bird’s life list, but we had to be content with our purely auditory encounter of this very scarce species.

We took a slightly early lunch back at our little café in Torti, this time happy to find more hummingbird feeders (and a lot more hummingbird activity) set up along the patio. Although we didn’t find any new species, it was nice to see species like Black-throated Mango, Snowy-bellied Hummingbird and Sapphire-throated Hummingbird at such a close range. The fruit feeders were hosting a Whooping Motmot, a pair of Buff-throated Saltators and a busy mix of tanagers including lots of Blue-gray and Palm and female Red-legged Honeycreepers. Overhead we witnessed a small pulse of migrant Turkey Vultures, and with the flocks we picked out the only Swainson’s Hawk of the trip as well as a passing Zone-tailed Hawk and several high-flying groups of migrant Wood Storks. Once we were back on the road we marveled at the sheer number of Ruddy Ground-Doves that were flushing from the road edge. They were likely foraging on spilled rice from passing trucks. Also enjoying the bounty were groups of Grackles, and in at least one of these flocks we picked out a couple of much smaller birds which proved to be Carib Grackles; a recent arrival in Panama.

Our final stop for the trip was back at the Lake Bayano Bridge, this time in sunny weather. Here we walked down to the water’s edge, this time quickly locating a dapper little Pied Water-Tyrant in the lakeside vegetation. The area was quite birdy, and in about a half-hour of time we picked up four new species for the trip. A pair of Barred Antshrikes showed particularly well, with the rusty and crested female practically begging for a photo shoot. Two Social Flycatchers, here near the eastern edge of their range in Panama were a nice find in some small Cercropias, and a mixed flock gifted us a very vocal Scrub Greenlet and a migrant Orchard Oriole. It might have been nice to linger, but we had to get back to Panama City with plenty of time to complete the required Covid testing for our flights back to the United States, so we soon pushed on further west.

We arrived at our hotel near the international airport with plenty of time to check in and navigate the (quite easy) hotel-based COVID testing facility. A couple of particularly keen participants joined me in a brief spell of birding the hotel grounds, which at the tail end of the day proved surprisingly productive with a Gray Kingbird sitting on some roadside utility wires, a small group of Yellow-crowned Parrots passing overhead and a few Saffron Finches on the lawns. We wrapped up the tour over dinner; accompanied by a very enthusiastic Christmas tree dedication ceremony in the adjacent hall – complete with a choir and small band. We reminisced about the tour highlights (with Black Oropendola, Harpy Eagle, displaying Manakins, Great Green and Blue-and-Yellow Macaws, Rufous-crested Coquette, Striped Owl, Green-and-Rufous Kingfisher and Blue Cotinga all getting mentions) over dinner. I want to thank this year’s wonderful crop of participants and our local leader Moyo Rodriguez 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: 22 December 2021