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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Panama: Darién Lowlands

2019 Narrative

IN BRIEF: Panamas 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 Colombian 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 just starting to build their pendulous nests 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 parents and single fuzzy two-month old chick, an adult Black-and-White Hawk-Eagle soaring over a forested ridge, a perched Great Potoo doing an excellent imitation of a tree stump, a male Blue Cotinga gleaming from the trees, Black Antshrikes lurking in the undergrowth, brightly coloured woodpeckers including Cinnamon, Spot-breasted and Golden-green working trees just overhead, a trio of Dusky-backed Jacamars sitting out for us in excellent light, and the surprisingly attractive and range-restricted Black Oropendola, there were truly wonderful birds throughout the trip.

Apart from the avian treasures (we recorded 241 species in 6 days) the experience of traveling tropical rivers by dugout canoe, and of meeting the local indigenous peoples make this trip truly special. 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 2019 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. On the way up to the trailhead we stopped when we noted a raptor circling overhead with a small group of Turkey Vultures. Its pale head, dark wing linings and wide fingers cemented the identification as a Grey-headed Kite; an auspicious start to the day’s birding!

We arrived at our chosen trailhead planning to walk about a kilometer 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. Some members of the group elected not to make the hike, so we split up, with roughly half the group staying out on the road and walking slowly north in search of bird activity on the forest edge. The road crew found the birding to be a bit on the slow side, as an unseasonal full sun was already beating down and causing roving mixed flocks to stay out of the open. Even so, we found a few noteworthy species, including a nice flock of Sulphur-rumped Tanagers that had a few Black-and-Yellow Tanagers and Plain-coloured Tanagers mixed in. A few Fulvous-vented Euphonia were scattered along the road, quietly feeding on fruiting shrubs. Although the perched up Yellow-throated Toucan that showed well for several minutes was certainly our most colourful find, perhaps the “best” bird was a male White-whiskered Puffbird that we located in the understory above a small creek that crossed under the road.

The group that walked into the woods met with very rapid success, as just as they reached the first creek crossing they picked up a stolid bird perched quietly in the mid-story. Sapayoa! This deep olive-green bird, with a golden sheen on the nape and crown, and a yellowish blush to the underparts is much more attractive than the field guides would suggest. As it turned out the group was actually watching two different birds in the canopy, and both members of the pair lingered for several minutes, seemingly posing for pictures before eventually moving downstream. As often seems the case these Sapayoa were hanging around the margins of a small mixed flock. Although it was hard to tear our attentions away from the prized, we did look at a few Carmiol’s Tanagers (actually a grosbeak, despite the name), a handsome Bicoloured Antbird in the understory, a male Red-capped Manakin with its head glowing like a fiery will-o’-wisp, a few Tawny-crested Tanagers and our first Lesser Greenlets. As the trail conditions were firm, with little mud to contend with and the Sapayoas appeared right on cue the forest bound half of the group actually returned to the bus first, finishing the trail in record time!

We descended back to the pacific lowlands, finding the conditions sunny until we reached our next birding and lunch stop in the town of Torti. 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. 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 life birds 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 Rusty-margined Flycatchers were actively plucking fruit from a nearby tree. While we were on the patio we also witnessed active Turkey Vulture migration, with a steady trickle of birds passing overhead and a few migrant Broad-winged Hawks mixed in. The fruit tables were attracting a steady stream of Blue-gray Tanagers, Bananaquits and Clay-coloured Thrushes, and a nearby Cercropia tree was bringing in Streaked Flycatchers and a few more tanagers. 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 late afternoon, with time for our lodge orientation, which was interrupted by the arrival of a pair of Spot-crowned Barbets feeding in a tree just a few feet away from the dining area.

The clearing around the camp has been liberally stocked with hummingbird-friendly plants, and in addition to those flowers the camp staff maintain a half-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 Verbenas 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. A short walk around the grounds revealed all three of the local toucan species, with lots of Keel-billed Toucan and Collared Aracari and a few huge-billed Yellow-throated Toucans. Along the edge of the woods we teased out a Whooping Motmot, and a local specialty in the form of a cooperative Grey-cheeked Nunlet. As is customary we heard the nunlet well before finding it, but eventually the bird slipped up and sat in a good position, allowing us to enjoy scope views. Our last particularly noteworthy bird for the afternoon was White-headed Wren. A large family group of this striking canopy wren came chuckling in, landing in an open tree in the clearing and then relaxing in the early evening sun, having a preen or a last-minute snack. White-headed Wrens are a member of the genus Campylorhynchus, the same genus as the more familiar Cactus Wren. Large and brash, they have eschewed the customary dark understory and tangles frequented by many wrens and instead spend most of their time in the canopy, feeding in epiphytic tangles. They have a limited range; occurring in the pacific lowlands of Colombia and parts of the Darien and Caribbean slope of Eastern Panama.

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 (almost 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, came down to the tables for bananas and occasionally worked on the beginnings of their pendulous nests in one of the open trees in the clearing. A little Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher was calling from high in the canopy, and with a little coaxing we managed to locate it perched just a bit overhead. Seeing these colourful canopy sprites is always tricky from the ground, so we felt fortunate to have such good views. A small fruiting tree was attracting two male Golden-headed Manakins, who were repeatedly jumping from branch to branch grabbing small red fruits before buzzing back into the denser shrubbery. A little flock of Thick-billed and Fulvous-vented Euphonias, and a couple of Palm and Blue-gray Tanagers were copying the manakins dining habits in the trees behind the feeding tables. The clearing proved quite good for flycatchers in general, as over the course of the morning we found Great Crested, Acadian, Streaked, Rusty-margined, and Boat-billed Flycatchers as well as a couple of Eastern Wood-Pewees and a pair of Forest Elaenias.

After breakast 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 ingeneous set of tied-in rope handrails. After driving through a lot of cleared habitat enroute 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. As we ascended the hill we could hear the distinctive wing snaps and whistles of displaying manakins near the trail. It didn’t take too long to spot a couple of brilliantly plumaged males sitting just a few feet off the ground above their cleaned off display areas. Like many male manakins these Golden-collareds are a perfect study in excellent bird design – with bright colours and interesting behavior all tucked into an undeniably cute package. At the top of the trail we found a small flock of Purple-throated Fruitcrows high up in the canopy. The male flew in overhead a couple of times, landing with their characteristic quivering tail, but we could never quite make out the purple (really claret) coloured throat due to the angle. Wedge-billed 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. At about the midpoint of the short trail we located a Royal Flycatcher that behaved perfectly for us, perching in good light and close range several times. As is usual for this species the bird kept its glittering purple and orange sideways crest neatly tucked out of view. Just a bit down the trail we spotted a perched Blue-throated Goldentail sitting quietly in the understory, and while trying to re-find it after it zipped off we were distracted by a calling Black Antshrike. It took a bit of time to find it, and when we did the bird was remarkably high in the trees, but there was no mistaking the jet-black male as it called down at us from a viney tangle. This is another species with a very small range, limited to the Darien and adjacent Colombia. We completed the trail, stopping for our first White-flanked Antwren before arriving back at the camp. Once back in the clearing we helped ourselves to some cold drinks and spent a bit of time watching the local group of White-faced Capuchins and several Red-tailed Squirrels that were making a concerted run at the fruit tables where they seemed intent on competing to see which mammal could carry off the largest number of fruit pieces at a time.

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. Just a few feet away from the lodge clearing we stopped to pick through a small mixed flock that contained our first Black-crowned Tityra, Yellow-breasted Flycatchers and a pair of White-tailed Trogons as well as some recently arrived migrants such as Bay-breasted Warbler and Baltimore Oriole. In the front garden of the lodge we found a pair of huge Lineated Woodpeckers that were hammering away on a small trunk, while just behind them we picked out a pair of Red-throated Caracaras perched in a Cercropia, occasionally uttering their truly coarse and turkey-like cries that sound so decidedly unfalconlike. The turkeyesque comparison became even more apt when one bird teetered on its chosen perch with its wings flapping about in an ungainly fashion – making the bird look more like a Guan or oversized Chachalaca then a member of the same family that contains elegant and powerful birds like the Peregrine. We walked as far out as the main entrance gate, where we spent quite some time searching for a calling White-bellied Antbird that was lurking in the undergrowth. These reclusive antbirds seem unnecessarily attractive, given their perchance for staying well hidden. Just before we were ready to head back with just glimpses of the bird the male sat up on an eye level branch, staying long enough for us to soak in the subtleties of its black, white, grey and rust plumage.

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 as we slowly headed towards (but not quite reaching) the town of Yaviza, which sits at the eastern terminus of the road. 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, a Purple Gallinule 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 swept right in to us and lingered just overhead along the roadside fence. 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. 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!

As is often the case in more open country raptors become a more prevalent group, and over the course of the afternoon we spotted a lovely Laughing Falcon, several Roadside Hawks, a perched Gray-headed Kite and a diminutive Pearl Kite. A bit further down the road there are significant patches of forest, and here we encountered a few mixed flocks, with birds such as White-winged and Cinnamon Becards, Streaked and Rusty-margined Flycatchers, Golden-hooded and Plain-coloured Tanagers and Blue Dacnis filling in the bulk of the activity. A pair of Barred Puffbirds, a large and showy buffy puffbird with a baleful yellow eye that is generally limited to the Darien in North America showed extremely well in one of the flocks. In the same flock we found a pair of Golden-green Woodpeckers high in the canopy. The bright olive body, crimson cap and bold yellow cheek stripe combine for a most pleasing bird, although their harsh screaming calls don’t seem to jive well with their elegant attire. Nearby was a pair of giant Crimson-crested Woodpeckers that seemed to be playing hide and seek with us, popping their heads over on alternate sides of the trunk. Oropendolas also put on a good display, with Chestnut-headed, Crested and Black all on offer. 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 they are truly a Canopy Camp specialty, and perhaps the most attractive species of Oropendola to boot. Near the end of the day we spotted some distant Chestnut-fronted Macaws that seemed to be investigating a potential nest cavity in a large tree. This is the smallest, and most common species of Macaw in Panama, and one that seems to have developed a taste for teak nuts, of which there are an ever-increasing supply these days as new teak plantations are replacing fields and forests across eastern Panama. Although these little Macaws were likely the highlight parrot species for the afternoon we also enjoyed multiple views of the widespread Blue-headed and Red-lored Parrots and a few chattering groups of Orange-chinned Parakeets. Bouyed with our success over the first full day of the trip we headed back to the camp for dinner and a relaxing night’s sleep in our comfortable tents, surrounded by the sounds of the forest (and for some, the sounds of calling Crested and 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. For 2019 we elected to visit the closer Harpy Eagle nest, and then in the afternoon try for a known Crested Eagle nest a few miles downstream. We headed out fairly early from the camp, driving down to the end of the road at Yaviza and then boarding a small boat for a short trip downstream on the Chucanaque River where a local rancher had been keeping tabs on a pair of Eagles for several months. We arrived at the riverbank in front of his property before 7am, but already the day was quite warm, with only a few scattered clouds, and quite high humidity. In fact, for much of the week the temperatures were 6-12 degrees above average, much more aligned with the normal annual highs than the customary November (historically the coolest month of the year here) lows. At the urging of the camp staff the rancher had recently improved the trail system out to the eagle, using wooden railings on the steeper patches, and putting boards down over the muddier sections. Even so, the stretches through his open fields were somewhat arduous due to the sun and humidity, and we were certainly glad of the horse carrying extra water for us when we stopped for a break at the midway point. There were, of course, birds to be seen out in the open sections of trail, and we did stop for things like our first American Kestrels, some perched Fork-tailed Flycatchers, Long-tailed Tyrants sitting high atop some bare branches along the forest edge and perched up Roadside, Broad-winged and Gray-lined Hawks.

By mid-morning we were into the forest behind the rancher’s property. Within just a few feet of entering the woods the temperature fell and we were surrounded by bird noise and shade. We pressed on, and a bit uphill, and soon arrived at the small makeshift clearing on a ridge 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. By virtue of our ridgetop angle the nest was just few degrees above our eye-level, and we could just make out the white fuzzy head of the now two-month old chick poking up amongst the branches of the nest. To our delight the adult female soon swept overhead, landing near the nest and staring down at us with a not terribly friendly air. 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. Soon after the arrival of the female the male came in as well, with both adults making occasional flights over the trees and calling. With the chick begging for breakfast the entire time it made for quite an overwhelming sensory input for the onlookers. The adults soon relaxed a bit, with one bird wandering off in search of prey and the other perching near to the nest above us. Part of our group wandered a bit more down the trail, where they 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 was more leisurely than our trek out in the morning, and we stopped repeatedly whenever bird activity seemed to warrant it. Not too far from the nest we teased out a furtive Chestnut-backed Antbird and a pair of Black-crowned Antshrikes that were calling along the trail. Back out in the pastureland we spent a bit of time scanning the trees around a small horse corral, where the undoubted highlight was a male Blue Cotinga that flew into a nearby tree, staying annoyingly in the back of the foliage, but still burning with a nearly incandescent blue fire that seemed to emanate from somewhere deep within its satiny feathers. Closer to the river we stopped in a small heavily vegetated valley between the two pastures. The removal of the canopy here had resulted in quite prolific undergrowth, and banks of flowering shrubs were holding the attention of a nice variety of hummingbirds including instructive side-by-side comparisons of Long-billed and Pale-bellied Hermits and nice views of Black-throated Mango and Rufous-tailed Hummingbird. A male Great Antshrike was calling vigorously from a thicket along the edge of the trail, and despite the species’ proclivity for remaining under cover we decided to see if we could coax it out. To our surprise the bird showed several times, a handsome and very large black-backed, white-bodied bird with a piercing scarlet eye. Here too was a male Black Antshrike that showed off well as it clambered around in an adjacent thicket, and just as we started the walk down to the riverbank we stopped to admire a sitting Black-tailed Trogon.

With the first sojourn into the woods so successful we boarded our boat and started downstream with high hopes for a repeat performance with the pair of Crested Eagles that had been frequenting a nest site about an hour away. The river level was remarkably low for this time of year, with many sandbars and islands in the channel. Wood Storks, various herons including about a half-dozen Cocoi Herons, and countless Neotropic Cormorants and Spotted Sandpipers livened up the shoreline as we moved towards the Pacific. Raptors were prevalent along the riverbank as well, with a circling King Vulture, a few pairs of Bat Falcons and a couple of perched Common Black Hawks being called out as we motored downstream. When we reached the trailhead for the nest we were surprised by the water levels, which we so low that extricating ourselves from the boat up to the bank became a bit of an engineering project. Our local guides were more than up to the task though, employing some huge cut palm leaves, poles and ropes, and a large wooden ladder to create a navigable path up to the bank. It was a muddy but short and flat trail into the woods from the river to the nest. The path wandered through some open forest with lots of palms in the understory and thousands of multicoloured crabs scuttling about in the mud; quite a different feel to the more upland walk for the Harpy earlier in the day. Unfortunately for us, as we neared the nest the clouds that had been building up through the morning opened up, and we spent about a half hour standing on the trail, using the palms as makeshift umbrellas. The downpour was at times quite intense, and after it cleared bird activity really seemed depressed. We spent about an hour and a half waiting near the nest tree, and searching the immediate area for any signs of the chick, but were not able to locate it. This pair of Crested Eagles had been using a large Cuipo tree as a nesting site for about a year, with their mostly fledged chick still holding quite close to the tree most of the time. Perhaps with the rain, the chick had moved off and lower in the forest canopy, remaining in hiding during our visit. The walk back to the river was punctuated with nice views of a pair of Crimson-crested Woodpeckers over the trail, but otherwise the woods seemed quite quiet. We were a little bit apprehensive about navigating the ladder to get back onboard the boat, but to our surprise the combination of an incoming tide and the rainstorm had risen the local river level by at least ten feet. This made it easy to get back aboard, and by the mid-afternoon we were on our way back up to Yaviza, where we arrived still damp from the rain with enough time in the day to return to camp to dry out before it became dark.

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 and 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 small mixed flock with several cooperative Yellow-margined Flycatchers, a pair of Black-chested Jay, and a gorgeous Squirrel Cuckoo. In the understory nearby we could hear a singing Bare-crowned Antbird calling from a dense patch of heliconia. We moved a bit away from the birds, finding a section of the thicket that was more open, and with some recordings coaxed the birds up the slope towards us. It took a bit of time before all of the participants managed a view, but eventually we even had the female actually sitting on a bare branch long enough for scope views. 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. Here too we enjoyed very good views of a nesting pair of Rufous-breasted Hermits that perched out in the sun just in front of us for several minutes. Their delicate nest was woven into a dangling tangle of grasses, and wonderfully sheltered by a large overhanging heliconia leaf that functioned as a well-designed patio porch. As we returned to the van we heard a calling White-flanked Antwren down a small side road, and we decided to give chase. This turned out to be a simply brilliant decision, as when we walked around the corner on the short road we discovered a large mixed flock feeding in a wonderfully open section of forest in good light. It was the most diverse flock that we encountered over our two weeks in Panama, and we spent over an hour simply standing in place, calling out birds from all directions around us. The flock had a little bit of everything in it. For those in the group who prefer antbirds we picked out Black-crowned Antshrike, a pair of Rufous-winged Antwrens, another Bare-crowned Antbird and, of course, the White-flanked Antwrens that had caused us to walk down the road in the first place. For those that prefer the wide array of flycatchers the flock produced a very showy Black-tailed Flycatcher that uncharacteristically remained in view for over 15 minutes rather than flashing away into the understory in a puff of yellow and black. Migrant Great Crested Flycatchers and Acadian Flycatcher joined resident Boat-billed, Ochre-bellied and Streaked Flycatchers as well as a perched Forest Elaenia and our first visible Brown-capped Tyrannulets within the flock as well. Some other noteworthy species included a handsome pair of Black-bellied Wrens that were clambering around in a large vine tangle, a busy flock of White-shouldered Tanagers that joined White-winged and Cinnamon Becards in an effort to completely denude the fruits from a small tree, and our first Plain Xenops.

Eventually the flock moved on, and after some mid-morning refreshments we headed a bit further down the road as well. At our next stop we enjoyed a pair of Dusky Antbirds that showed well as they called repeatedly back to us from along the road. 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 small mixed flock crossed our path here too, with a pair of stolid looking Olivaceous Flatbills sitting in the understory and a pair of Double-banded Graytail that were acrobatically clinging to leaves and poking along the leaf clusters in search of prey. The birds moved quickly through the canopy, but eventually we tracked one bird down as it sat up and preened in the sun for a couple of minutes. 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.

By late morning we reached the banks of the Chucanaque River, and after spending a few minutes watching a glittering male Violet-bellied Hummingbird feeding on a Verbena bush near the carpark we walked down a well-maintained trail that parallels the river downstream. Although it was by now quite hot and sunny the short walk did produce a few birds, with a beautiful Yellow-backed Oriole, a migrant Swainson’s Thrush, and a bright male Golden-collared Manakin among lots of more widespread species. Returning from the short trail we paused to look at some circling Short-tailed and Band-rumped Swifts and a passing migrant Swainson’s Hawk and then headed back to the lodge for lunch and a midday siesta.

Our afternoon was scheduled to include a trip out to a private ranch to look for the Great Green Macaws that often frequent a forested ridgeline in the late afternoon. Unfortunately, the road conditions were very poor on the ranch during our visit, and rather than undertake a multiple mile walk out in the sun to get to the ridge we decided to head a bit south of the camp, to the other side of the hydrological reserve where we could spend time birding through some open pastureland and riparian thickets. This proved a good choice for several reasons, not the least of which included the heavy rain in the late afternoon (where the refuge of the van was most welcome). After about a thirty-minute drive around through the town of Meteti we arrived at a creek crossing with large riparian trees. Accompanied by the happy squeals of a group of Panamanian kids splashing around in the river we found an (eventually) cooperative Pacific Antwren, some passing Lesser Swallow-tailed Swifts, a Lousiana Waterthrush bobbing along the rocky Creekside, a perched Green Kingfisher and a busy little flock of Plain-coloured Tanagers. Before crossing the creek and heading a bit further into the farmland we stoppe to give a helping hand to the father of the happy but wet kids, who had somehow managed to get his small sedan somewhat stuck in the creek while giving it a wash. Driving along the hedgerows produced a couple of Lesser Goldfinches feeding on sunflower plants, and an impressive number of White-tipped and Ruddy Ground-Doves shooting off the roadsides. Our destination was to be another small creek crossing, which we reached just as a light rain began to fall. We had time here to enjoy a couple of Northern Waterthrushes and also to locate a staked-out Great Potoo that was roosting just a bit off the road, sitting perfectly motionless and doing a remarkably excellent imitation of a gnarled branch. With the rain falling with a bit more purpose we decided to backtrack before the creek crossings became more interesting than we might wish. Our last stop for the afternoon was at a small roadside wetland not too far from Puerto Kimba, where, using the bus as a rain shelter, we picked out a quite soggy looking Rufescent Tiger-Heron (oddly our only sighting of this normally fairly common species this year) sitting near a small pond. Navigating around inside the seats of the bus so that everyone could enjoy a view out an open window took a bit of negotiation, but was achieved with good humour all around. With no signs of the rains abating we headed back to the camp, arriving to dry conditions, which thankfully then continued for the rest of the tour.

Our next 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 left the camp early, heading down the road to La Penita. Our arrival at the river was delayed a bit as while driving down the road we heard a Red-billed Scythebill calling from a roadside tree. This is a spectacular species of Woodcreeper, with a remarkably curved and thin pale red bill that is used primarily for prying into epiphytic plants like an elaborate set of surgical forceps. The bird was happily very cooperative, eventually even sitting up in the sun for a full minute and allowing us to really appreciate its highly specialized features. Once at the boat ramp on the Chucanaque we discovered that our boats were running late as well, which gave us some time to soak in the somewhat ramshackle migrant camp that has sprung up in the village here over the last few years. Panama has, for well over a decade, been on the receiving end of a trail of immigrants who seek passage from Africa (largely) to Brazil and then travel overland to Colombia before buying passage on small boats to Panama’s north Darien coast. They then have to cross the Tarcarcuna mountains and buy passage on small boats to ports with road access to the Pan American highway, like this location in the town of La Penita. 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). 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.

In all we had to wait about twenty minutes for the boats to arrive, with one of the captains apologizing profusely for the delay. The boats 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 perched Collared Forest-Falcon, Laughing Falcon and Crane Hawk (here of the all black morph that dominates in the Darien), a sitting Scaled Pigeon and a dozens of Mangrove Swallows which 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. We soon arrived at the village, taking a bit of time to organize our belongings, drinks and boots and then set off for a walk into the adjacent forest. The locals had obviously been working hard on maintaining their trails, with handrails and boards down in the open muddy section just behind the town, and a well cleared route through the forest. Before we reached the woods, we stopped in the open marshy grassland near town to look at Greater and Smooth-billed Ani, some Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, perched Purple Gallinule and Green Herons and even a brief flyby from a small flock of Blue-winged Teal.

The forest here is short, with a fairly open understory and a significant amount of vines in the mid-story. 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 more rare 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. In a particularly dense section of the understory we coaxed out a pair of White-bellied Antbirds, which showed well for the couple of people who were not in a good spot to see the birds around the camp. Nearby we studied a perched Gray-capped Flycatcher, the last of the roughly half-dozen species likely kiskadee-like flycatchers in the area. Perhaps the most interesting find was a Black-faced Ant-Thrush that cooperated with our cunning plan almost perfectly as it slowly walked across the trail in front of us with its characteristic cocked up tail and bobbing head. A little flock graced us as well, with a pair of Sulphur-rumped Flycatchers, a diminutive Southern Bentbill, and Golden-collared and Golden-headed Manakins appearing in turn. Puddles on the trail were attracting a couple of Northern Waterthrushes, and at one point we picked out a thrush bounding along the track that proved to be a Veery; a scarce migrant in Panama, and a new bird for both of the local guides who were along with us.

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. 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 and tiny American Pygmy. We had to content ourselves with 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. Although the lake didn’t produce our hoped for waterbirds it was alive with birds. Several Purple-throated Fruitcrows were perched above us, calling regularly and we were able to watch the male with its brilliantly claret-coloured throat ruff and quivering tail as he jumped around in the mostly open tree. A noisy flock of Greater Ani and Chestnut-headed Oropendolas passed by with a few Yellow-rumped Caciques in tow, oddly our only sighting of this often common species this year. Another mixed flock was foraging just above the lake, with a pair of Double-banded Graytails showing well, our only Northern Barred Woodcreeper of the trip, and some very bold Olivaceous Piculets. The area 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 saw the tail end of quite a large Spectacled Caiman vanishing under the water with a mighty splash, likely curtailing any thought of us going for a quick swim.

The walk back to the village was productive as well, with an excellent pair of Red-rumped Woodpeckers foraging just overhead, a trio of Gray-cheeked Nunlets bashing recently captured caterpillars senseless on their perches, and a lovely male Long-tailed Tyrant displaying from its chosen high snag. A bit past the Nunlets we located three sitting Gray-chested Doves sitting along the trail. This portly forest dove is not uncommon, but somewhat surprisingly was a write-in for the cumulative trip list. Crimson-crested and Lineated Woodpeckers appeared as well, our woodpecker luck continued when we found a pair of Cinnamon Woodpeckers foraging on some thin branches just a few feet off the ground. We had been hearing Cinnamon Woodpeckers calling off in the distance for several days, so finally connecting with this beautifully plumaged coppery species was especially welcome. While going over the extensive day list after dinner we realized that we had unknowingly completed the unprecedented woodpecker sweep, detecting all nine regularly occurring local woodpeckers in the same day!

Returning to the village in the late morning, we stopped at the large thatch pavilion that serves as the local town meeting hall and enjoyed snacks and cold drinks in the shade. 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, clapping along to the beat their bare feet on the earthen floor. After the routine, many participants took advantage of the local artisan market, purchasing intricately woven plates, bowls, masks or curios directly from the local artists. We bade our gracious hosts farewell and boarded the dugouts for a short journey further upstream, where we were soon disembarking up a set of makeshift earthen stairs dug into the riverbank that lead to a small banana and coffee plantation set into the riverine forest. About four 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 three Dusky-backed Jacamars perched on a tall bare limb above us but we also found a pair of Rufous-tailed Jacamars in the clearing as well, with one of the birds perching at an optimal angle for us to revel in the glossy emerald and rufous tones in its plumage.

As by now the afternoon had well and truly set in and our thoughts were largely turning to lunch and a siesta back at the camp we set off downstream, bound for the boat ramp. We arrived in time for a late lunch, with many people opting to relax for the rest of the afternoon around the camp, taking pictures of the plentiful birds and butterflies around the clearing or just spending a bit of time swinging in the hammocks. A few folk though opted for a late afternoon visit back to the end of the highway at Yaviza. As we headed east we stopped at a few of the wetlands where we again failed to elicit any responses from Donacobius. The stops were worthwhile though, as we did encounter our first Orange-crowned Oriole, a handsome species that is limited in North America to the Darien region. It was hanging out in a roadside bare tree, with a nice mixed flock of Thick-billed and Yellow-crowned Euphonia, Blue-gray and Golden-hooded Tanagers and several Lesser Goldfinches, making for quite a colourful assemblage of birds! A few kilometers further on we stopped to look at an impressive mass of Black Vultures that were swarming a recently deceased cow out in one of the fields. While watching the somewhat morbid scene we were surprised to see a flock of well over 50 Shiny Cowbirds cruise by, quite a large number for the Darien, likely a sign of the ever-increasing clearing of the local forests.

Our main birding destination for the afternoon was the cemetery in Yaviza, which sits atop a small hill adjacent to the Chucanaque River. It’s a small cemetery, fringed by large trees that are often in fruit in November, and the hill affords an excellent view of the surrounding area. Back in 2014 a couple of Bicoloured Wrens, a large wren native to adjacent Colombia and Venezuela were discovered here, with sightings continuing in the intervening years. Like the Shiny Cowbird this is a species that prefers open forest edge, and its recent colonization of the Darien signifies a significant change in the overall amount of forest cover. Although the birds have been around Yaviza for years the population is still quite small, and before this year the species had eluded us on the WINGS Darien trips. This time though, we arrived in good weather, and heard the chuckling wren within moments of arriving on the grounds. It took only a short time for us to track it down in a short Cercropia tree, where it remained for several minutes putting on a bit of a show for us. It’s an attractive and large species, brown backed and crowned, with a bold eyeline and whitish-cream underparts. We spent a good half-hour here after finding the wren, watching a furtive Buff-breasted Wren creeping through the riverine scrub, and an array of tanagers and warblers (and another Orange-crowned Oriole) feeding in the trees around us.

Happy with our successful trip to the cemetery we started back towards the camp, stopping for a white to watch a pair of Bat Falcons that were hunting grasshoppers in some tall grass along the road. The birds would swoop down and grab an insect in flight, before landing on some nearby bare trees and slowly eating their hapless prey. As by now the day was drawing to a close there were a lot of parrots flapping about here too, and we particularly enjoyed our views of a large flock of Chestnut-fronted Macaws, several dozen Blue-headed and Red-lored Parrots and some quietly perched Orange-chinned Parakeets that actually flashed their nearly invisible namesake chins at us before zipping off over the trees. As dusk was approaching we picked out several dozen Lesser Nighthawks flying over the road, close enough for us to make out the rounded wing shape that helps to separate this species from their larger Common Nighthawk cousins. As we neared the camp a small owl flew across the road, but when we stopped to see if we could find it our plans were compromised almost immediately when a beetle made a beeline for my ear canal. Having a live and quite unhappy insect crawling around inside your head is not a pleasant experience, and we decided to make haste for the camp in search of tweezers. Happily for me (but not for the beetle) it soon died, making it possible for me to point out a couple of Common Pauraque that were along the camps driveway. Dinner was a bit of a hilarious affair, with lots of flashlights, tweezers and talk about insects and orifices, an unusual end to a really great day out in the field!

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. Although the cleared area 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 watched a busy little flock of Blue Dacnis feeding on fruit along the road and a tame Pale-bellied Hermit that was perched just a couple of feet away from us. We moved down the road a bit, hearing a calling Buff-rumped Warbler from the nearby creekbed. The road forked, with one branch leading across the creek and then further up into the woods. This gave us an excellent angle on the rocky creekline, and soon we had located a pair of Buff-rumped Warblers that were bouncing along on the rocks, with their apricot-cream coloured rumps flashing like little beacons in the dim understory. We then walked a bit uphill, finding the going quite slow due to the recent passage of a large tractor that had torn up the trail, leaving quite a muddy mess in its wake. Usually we walk in a kilometer or so, but due to the conditions we just poked a toe down the road. This was far enough to encounter a nice mixed flock though, with a Whooping Motmot, our only Bay Wren of the trip and a showy pair of Black-crowned Antshrikes. The flock moved downslope, and we followed, intersecting it again near where we had parked the bus. White-shouldered Tanagers seemed to be the nuclear species in the group, with a busy flock of them chattering in the trees and slowly working along the edge of the woods. We picked out a Yellow-green Tyrannulet that was occasionally calling, just barely audible over the tanager noise. It didn’t take too long to find the bird, as the forest edge was quite sunny and relatively open. 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 have a tendency 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.

Given the mud we turned our attentions out to the fields near the forest, where we soon picked up a pair of Sooty-headed Tyrannulets perched above the road, and a lovely Ringed Kingfisher hunting around a small pond. While watching the flycatchers we noted a large number of Turkey and Black Vultures soaring along the ridgeline of the forested hills. With them was a calling White Hawk that promptly started circling right overhead. This broad winged hawk resembles a Common Black-Hawk in shape but is snowy white, with a thick black tail band and widely spread fingers in the wingtips. We kept looking up, and soon a sharp-eyed participant picked out a distantly soaring adult King Vulture. With such good success already on our impromptu hawk watch we kept at it for a few minutes more, until Moyo, our local guide, picked out a quite distant raptor slowly gliding just above the ridge, sticking quite close to the tops of the trees. We trained our scopes on it and when it started banking and showing a solidly dark back and crown paired with white underparts and face and thin black tail bands we realized that we were watching a hunting Black-and-White Hawk-Eagle. This is by far the rarest of the three species of Hawk-Eagle in central America, and occurs at very low densities across its fairly vast range. Although the bird never came close to us it was slowly tracking back and forth along the ridgeline, remaining in view for about 10 minutes and offering good chances at scope views for most of the participants.

Eventually the hawk-eagle flew beyond the ridge, and we decided to leave the reserve, for a quick check of a small section of the Rio Torti, a few kilometers north of our lunch spot. We stopped at the river along a narrow and empty country road, and then spent about a half-hour birding along the open riverbank, where we teased up a cooperative pair of Isthmian Wrens (a recent split from the old Plain Wren complex, and surely a candidate for worst new bird name), found a perched Striped Cuckoo that lingered on a tall snag for us to enjoy in the scopes and picked out a couple of migrating Swainson’s Hawks in a kettle of vultures.

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 a pair of Pied Water-Tyrants and a handsome adult Purple Gallinule in the grassy beds around the lakeshore. Here too were both Green and Striated Herons, whose ranges meet just here in east-central Panama. One of the birds appeared an excellent candidate for a hybrid, with a neck that was too grey for a Green Heron, but too purplish for a pure Striated. Also around the lakeshore we found an adult Bare-throated Tiger-Heron lurking in some taller grass, like an oversized bittern. A small clearing around the boat ramp was hosting a few good birds as well, with an unusually cooperative pair of Jet Antbirds, a pair of Barred Antshrikes (a common and very widespread species, but a spectacular one), a singing Scrub Greenlet, a perched White-necked Puffbird and a migrant Yellow-billed Cuckoo that was rapidly stripping small caterpillars from a dense shrub. A comfort stop on the way back to Panama City provided some welcome snacks, cold drinks and even a circling Zone-tailed Hawk; which was to be our last new addition to the triplist, which brought us up to a wonderful 241 species over our six days exploring the Darien. That night we celebrated, reminiscing about the tour highlights 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: 17 December 2019