Birds of the Darien Province, Panama
Text and photos by Canadian wildlife photographers M.-F. and D. Rivard
After a first birdwatching trip to Panama during the rainy season last fall, we returned to see Panama during the dry season, hoping for better weather and perhaps an easier birdwatching experience. It was indeed dryer but also warmer (in fact, hot) and humid, making the some of our excursions difficult because of the intensity of the heat.
We first spent 2 full days at Canopy Tower, near Gambia, to get back into our birdwatching/photography mode. We were picked up at the airport in early afternoon and arrived at the Tower at 15:45. We were immediately invited to join a group leaving for Summit Pond at 16:00. We checked-in, quickly unpacked binoculars and cameras and were at the meeting point at the base of the tower by due time! We were glad we could join this outing as access to this excellent birding location, which is on the grounds of the police academy, requires a special permission. We saw the ringed, green and American pygmy kingfishers, the gray-cowled wood-rail, the jet antbird, the dot-winged antwren, the barred antshrike, the painted bunting, etc., for a total of 60 species in about two hours. This was a great start to our 10-day birdwatching trip.
In the following days at the Tower, we visited the world famous Pipeline Trail, as well as Plantation Road and trails near the Chagres River in Gamboa. Plantation Road is, as per its name, the vestige of a road which was connecting plantations of cacao, rubber trees and coffee. It was the first paved road of Panama and is now a trail of Soberania National Park well known for birdwatching. This is where we saw the white-whiskered puffbird, bright-rumped attila, golden-crowned spadebill, sunbittern, checker-throated antwren and many more.
Sunday (2017-04-02): Sendero Ibe Igar
Early on Sunday morning, we left Canopy Tower for Canopy Camp located 50 km west of Yaviza, a 5-hour drive. The province of Darien is on the eastern side of Panama, bordering Colombia. The Pan American highway stops in Yaviza, to start again in Turbo, Colombia. The area between Yaviza and Turbo is known as the Darien Gap, a unstable and swampy area of dense vegetation that foreigners are advised to avoid.
On the way to Darien, we stopped at Sendero Ibe Igar for birdwatching. This is where our small group of three people and Domi, our guide, were hoping to find a sapayoa, a rare bird usually found in forests near streams or wet ravines. What makes this bird special is that it belongs to "a lineage that evolved in Australia-New Guinea when Gondwana was in the process of splitting apart" (see Wikipedia - Sapayoa). The classification of this bird has been enigmatic, having been described at times as being related to flycatchers, manakins or even pittas. At present, some field guides put it in the family called Eurylaimidae (with the broadbills) and others in its own family “Sapayoidae".
It did not take long for our small group to realize that the trail leading to the sapayoa was wet, muddy and, of course, slippery. It was also sloping down to a stream. With the ups and downs of the trail, the weight of the cameras and the intensity of the heat, we quickly went into a sweat. We finally got to the stream where Domi stopped to call the Sapayoa. There was no Sapayo! Domi encouraged us to continue further down the trail. We were told to stay on the rocks and fallen stems when crossing the stream as the bottom was soft and deep. Easer said then done! A few steps off the mossy rocks and stems are all it took to realize that indeed the bottom was soft and deep… . The photographic equipment necessary to document our observations was saved from water, however, and we continued along this trail, first going up to reach the top of the ravine and then down again to the next stream. After additional calls, two sapayoas were located on top of the canopy. They moved quickly while remaining high up, preventing us from capturing the moment with our cameras. This two hour walk did not give us any record of our observations, but the experience, which we qualified as “extreme birdwatching” because of the heat and condition of the trail, will remain in our memory forever. We also saw a striped woodhaunter and a buff-rumped warbler during this walk, which we were glad to add to our life list. Lunch at Torti and the following walk in a nearby trail brought us 20 additional species, including uncommon species like the golden-fronted greenlet, the yellow-bellied elaenia and the spot-breasted woodpecker.
As we progressed towards Canopy Camp, we passed two checkpoints, one at the entrance of Darien Province and the other further down the road. On daily birdwatching trips in Darien, we had to carry our passports as access to trails or side roads can be controlled at any time. This added security was welcomed. The camp was quite comfortable, with eight permanent tents with private bathrooms, as well as a sheltered open area used for dining and relaxation. A late afternoon walk around the campground gave us 24 species, including this sapphire-throated hummingbird (rare).
Monday (2017-04-03): Lajas Blancas and Camino El Salto
The next day, we went to Lajas Blancas in the morning and El Salto road in the afternoon. The day brought us the rare dusky-backed jacamar, and a number of uncommon species like the gray-cheeked nunlet, olivaceous piculet, golden-green woodpecker, white-eared conebill, double-banded graytail, long-tailed tyrant, orange-crowned oriole, fulvous-vented euphonia and white-winged becard, to name a few.
Tuesday (2017-04-04): Quebrada Félix and Yaviza wetlands
On the next day, we went to Quebrada Félix, hoping to find the black-crowned antpitta, a rare and secretive bird, the beautiful blue cottinga, the white-fronted nunbird and a number of other birds. Wellington boots were provided for the day as the 5-hour walk brought us on a trail winding along a stream forcing us to walk in the stream most of the time. We saw 34 species during that walk, many of them new to us. Unfortunately, midway into the walk, one of our companion lost foot and fell in the stream, injuring his hand and fingers in an attempt to protect himself during his fall. After an evaluation of the injury, available means (duct tape) were used to stabilize the little finger, most seriously damaged in the fall. Despite this incident, the group decided to continue the search for the antpitta, as planned. Our guide soon heard it and, after much coming and going, the antpitta was found on a steep slope in the forest. The antpitta remained low in the vegetation near the ground, well hidden behind leaves with no opportunity for a photo free of obstructions. Nevertheless, the few photos that we took provide a souvenir of that exciting moment which the group celebrated with a high-five.
We were able to find a blue cottinga as well as a number of uncommon species like the white-fronted nunbird, tiny hawk, white hawk, spectacled owl, spot-breasted woodpecker, wedge-billed woodcreeper, yellow-bellied eleania, and scaly-breasted wren. This was a difficult but exciting morning of birdwatching! We ended the day near Yaviza in late afternoon to see black oropendolas at their roosting location.
Wednesday (2017-04-05): Río Membrillo, Nuevo Vigía Emberá, Camino a Nuevo Vigía--Puente sobre Río Chucunaque, Las Doncellas (Aligandí) and Quebrada Félix.
On the fourth day in Darien, we headed towards the Emberra-Woonaan reserve to see a crested eagle’s nest. We had planned to go there earlier in the week but it was unaccessible by road as a bridge was under major repairs. We drove about one hour to reach the bridge crossing Rio Membrillo. It quickly became apparent that the bridge was still under repair, with only one open lane. While we thought that we could cross the bridge with the 4WD, we were uncertain that the bridge would still be in operation on our return as it was clearly under active reconstruction. We decided to change our plans for the day and to return to the crested eagle nest on the following day.
We spent the rest of the morning in Nuevo Vivia Membrillo where we saw the rufescent tiger-heron, the American pygmy kingfisher, the ringed kingfisher and the green-and-rufous kingfisher along the river. We saw about 30 species of birds that morning, including the barred puffbird, black Antshrike, white-bellied Antbird, plain Xenops, Forest Elaenia, black-chested Jay, tropical Gnatcatcher and black Oropendola. While we did not see the crested eagle on that day, we did see quite a few raptors, including the pearl kite, savannah hawk, common black hawk, roadside hawk, grey-lined hawk, broad-winged hawk and bat falcon. We also saw the spectacled parrotlet at Quebrada Félix as we returned to camp at the end of the day.
Thursday (2017-04-06): Emberra-Woonaan Comarca, Lajas Blancas, and Embera-Woonaan land.
The next morning, we left early for a second attempt to cross the river but, as we got to the bridge, it became clear that its reconstruction was still underway. Several trucks transporting fresh products (like avocados, fresh vegetables, etc.) were on the other side of the river. They had to spend the night there, waiting for the bridge to be completed. As we drove away, we met the crew responsible for the bridge repair and were told that it would be fully operational later on that day. We opted to return in mid-afternoon and, indeed, were able to cross the river safely at that time. A short drive beyond the bridge and brief walk finally brought us to the nest located on the land of Embera-Woonaan indigenous people (accessed with their permission). The nest was occupied by one adult in pale morph plumage and one eaglet in an all white plumage. The crested eagle is very rare in Panama and this site offered a unique opportunity to photograph it from a distance, without too many obstructions. The three attempts made to reach the site were well worth the effort and we remained quiet despite the excitement while celebrating these moments.
Friday (2017-04-07): Canopy Camp and Agua Caliente Road
Friday, our last full day in Darien, was spent around the camp. A 3.5-hour walk on the grounds in the morning gave us 30 species of birds, despite the intensity of the heat. We spent the afternoon at the camp, relaxing in the shade to avoid the heat of the sun. In late afternoon, a drive with our guide to Agua Caliente Road in Meteti gave us more sightings, including the white-headed wren, rufous-tailed jacamar, collared aracari, cinnamon becard, Pacific antwren, northern waterthrush and shiny cowbird.
Saturday (2017-04-08): Reserva San Francisco, Tortí, Bayano Lake bridge
We left early on Saturday as our return to Panama City included a stop at Reserva San Francisco, lunch at Torti and a short stop at the Bayano Lake Bridge. Reserva San Francisco, a private reserve owned by the St. Francis Foundation, was created in 2001 to protect headwaters for the region and to serve as a wildlife refuge. We met Padre Pablo Kasuboski, the founder of the reserve, at the reception and then proceeded to a nearby trail well known to our guide. This is where we saw the black-and-white hawk-eagle (rare) and a number of uncommon species like the ocellated antbird, the scaly-throated leaf-tosser, the buff-throated foliage-gleaner, the yellow-green tyrannulet, and the dusky-faced tanager.
Overall, we saw about 260 species of birds during our 10-day trip in Panama. Darien Province is unique for birdwatching because of its variety of bird species and, accordingly, it offered many new species for us. Our guide, Domiciano Alveo Hernaudez, was very accommodating, pleasant, patient, helpful, respectful of local residents and very knowledgeable about the region and avian fauna. He made sure we had the best experience possible and opportunities for good photography for birds that were often difficult to find.
Many of the photos taken during this trip have been submitted to BirdsEye and now appear in their mobile application to find or locate birds around the world. For the identification of bird species, we used “The Birds of Panama, A field Guide” by George R. Angehr and Robert Dean, A Zona Tropical Publication (Comstock Publishing Associates, a division of Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London).