Day Nought – 29 September 2016 – Transit
Bird species today – 13
Total trip bird species – Nil
Bird of the day – Brimstone Canary
Well, I guess day nought began about six months ago when Jeanie instructed me to sort myself out and organize a proper birding trip. It is not to say that all the birding I have already done in my lifetime hasn’t been proper, but anyone worth their birding salt must find their way to the Neotropics (Central and South America) one day and this was going to be my “proper birding” trip. My birding companion, Simon, was secured early on after a rather generous portion of wine one evening, and the date of 29 September was picked equally as early on.
It is, therefore, entirely fair to say that Day Nought has been a long time coming.
This report will hopefully read like a bit of a diary and it will hopefully be concise and interesting, rather than long and tedious. For your sakes and mine.
So, why Panama?
I think Peru would have been my first choice of country for a neotropic experience but selling the idea of a 6 week sabbatical to my great leaders at Prescient, in arguably our busiest year ever, was an unlikely proposal that would have seen the light of day. I, therefore, had to pick a far smaller country with an equally concentrated list of birds as Peru has. Costa Rica looked like the winner, initially, but Simon swayed me to a website of the Canopy Tower birding company which is operational exclusively in Panama. The Canopy Company puts together fully guided, comprehensive birding trips across their three lodges – Canopy Tower, Canopy Lodge and Canopy Camp.
See here for the website of the Canopy company:
The Tower is close to Panama City and it will be where we will end up on our first night in the country. It overlooks the canal and is no more than 30 minutes from Tucomen airport just outside Panama City.
The Lodge is a little further west in the foothills of the spine of mountains that extend south from Costa Rica and the Camp is about five hours east of Panama City in a wilderness area called the Darien. The Darien was off limits for many years during the ongoing conflict between drug lords, rebels and the military and, in much the same way that Mozambique was off limits during their civil war, but has recently become a birding destination, the Darien is now open to visitors and the bird list is not to be sneezed at.
I’ll talk a little more about each lodge as we get there but essentially our itinerary is designed to maximize the diversity across the country. We will miss out on the true highlands in the Chiriqui mountains close to Costa Rica, but there is always the possibility for tacking on an extra week at the end of our time here to clean up there (I would love to see my wife’s face as I throw out that little gem – I hope she appreciates my sense of humour).
The country is more or less divided down the middle by a spine of mountains which creates the Caribbean slope (in the north) and the Pacific slope in the south. Each has its own special vegetation and therefore special birdlife. The canal, more or less, right in the middle, also creates a natural divide in the wildlife. The list of species in Panama is long. There are around 970 species which is about the same as one finds in the whole of the Southern African sub-region. Additionally there are a whole heap of bird families that are specific to the neotropics to a greater or lesser degree (toucans, jacamars, tapaculos, tinamous, puffbirds, antbirds, nunbirds, hummingbirds, tanagers) and it was the major driving force behind me making a plan to get here.
Anyway, we hope to see somewhere between 350 and 450 species in our two weeks and I reckon 90% of them will be new for me. Simon is far more widely travelled so he has set his target at 150 species that are new for him.
This diary will be headed with the daily bird count and the total trip list so we can keep track of where we are at. I’ll also pick the best bird of each day and hopefully post a photo of it.
(Incidentally, the total tally of species on day nought are the 13 birds that I recorded outside my office in Westlake. It would be a lie to say I did not see any birds today. Naturally those 13 do not contribute to the trip tally).
Day One – 30 October 2016 – Canopy Tower
Bird species today – 1
Total trip bird species – 1
Bird of the day – Great-tailed Grackle (by default as it was the only bird)
The day started in mid air somewhere over Namibia and it ended with a humid arrival in Panama City. A lifer city and country for me.
The trip was relatively uneventful, which is what you always hope for on a long haul flight. We left Cape Town at 11:05pm on Thursday night, flew 11 hours, to arrive in Amsterdam at 10am, and then spent two hours kicking our heels at Schipol Airport before boarding yet another 11 hour flight to Panama City.
On both flights my travelling companion bade me a fond farewell when boarding the plane, as he turned left and I turned right. My seat on leg one was a bit of a squash and a squeeze, and right next to the toilets, but for some reason I wasn’t complaining, even when Simon started messaging me photos of the Business Class menu and his full recliner seat.
There is a fancy chat functionality on the in-flight entertainment where you can communicate with someone in a far flung part of the plane, but initially I couldn’t get hold of Simon, assuming that they don’t encourage the riff raff to communicate with the bourgeoisie, just in case it gets a little abusive. I could hear Simon muttering “let him eat plastic-packaged cake” as my messages eventually got through.
We arrived in Panama City at 5pm and the process through immigration, baggage collection and customs was a little slow, but relatively seamless. The plane’s approach to the Tucomen International airport was amazing as we flew low over the southern entrance of the canal.
We were picked up by the Canopy Tower shuttle and I am happy to say that we kicked off our list with a Great-tailed Grackle in the parking lot before we hit rush hour traffic. It was the only bird we saw, but one is better than zero.
It was an hour’s drive to the Canopy Tower and it was really amazing arriving at the place that I have been reading and dreaming about for at least six months. I will share some pics in the next entry as it was dark when we got here.
We met our fellow birders which is a group of five Americans and a single Taiwanese guy and even Simon brings the average age down a little.
Day two – 1 October 2016 – Canopy Tower
Bird species today – 99
Total trip bird species – 99
Total new birds for the day – 98
Bird of the day – Streak-chested Antpitta
I promised myself (and others) that I would keep my daily blogs brief. I committed to 500 words, and no more, but I have to admit that after a day like today it is going to be very hard to keep that promise.
Today was my first day of birding in the Neotropics and, as much as I had prepared my mind to be blown apart by all these new bird families, there is nothing much that could have prepared me for what I experienced today.
Yes, the weather was not the best, and my camera also suffered the ill effects of several downpours on our morning walk, but it was quite simply the most enjoyable 12 hours of birding I have ever had. My Southern African birding has been an accumulative thing. I started when I was six years old, and I have been at it for over 37 years, but today I was thrown in the deepend and I had to scramble to keep up with the tanagers, antbirds, woodcreepers, flycatchers, hummingbirds and other new families that appeared in front of me. There was actually a 45 minute period at the entrance to the world famous Pipeline Road where I missed several birds because they were simply coming too thick and fast.
Interestingly our day count wasn’t that spectacular at 99 birds (you would think I could have eked out one more for 100, don’t you?), but it was the sheer newness of what I was seeing that made it so sense-overloading.
To summarise the day in as few a words as possible, we started off on the deck of the Canopy Tower at 6am, after being wide awake for at least two and a half hours (an equal mix of jetlag and excitement forcing me awake at 3:45am). There was a fair amount of rain overnight and it was gloomy and misty at the top of the deck but I was still ticking at least one lifer a minute.
We had a rushed breakfast and then took a drive down to the canal and then to the start of the Pipeline Road. The Pipeline Road was built by the military as a back-up for the canal, but it was never really needed and went into disrepair. It is now mainly used for wildlife purposes and we saw a few trail runners as well.
It is officially about 17kms long but we kind of got stuck at the entrance for that 45 minutes and never really made it much more than 2kms down the road.
We strolled through the forest where the birding slowed down a bit, but the quantity was replaced by quality, as every bird we saw was pretty special. The best of the lot, and aptly given the title of the bird of the day, was a very cooperative Streak-chested Antpitta. Forest photography is tough and antpitta photography is even tougher, but for some reason this little guy came right out and posed on a branch and sang his sweet little heart out.
We suffered several heavy rain squalls on the Pipeline Road but we were lucky to get back for lunch before the real storm hit. It rained cats and dogs (or Tamarin Monkeys and Coatis) but it mostly cleared in time for our trip down to the Ammo Dump ponds back at the canal, which exposed us to a different type of habitat which was far easier birding, being a lot more open.
The Streak-chested Antpitta was pressed hard for the number one spot by an equally obliging White-throated Crake which stepped out into the open for a good while, allowing for some really decent photos.
We racked up another 40 or so birds and then headed for the Canopy Tower for the list tally and dinner.
Just, very briefly, the Canopy Tower was also originally built for military purposes and is situated on top of Semaphore Hill which overlooks the canal to the west. About 18 years ago it was bought by a Panamanian wildlife entrepreneur and converted into a cleverly designed birding lodge with the accommodation on the first and second floors, the dining room on the third and an observation deck above the canopy on the top of the building. Tomorrow we will spend the entire morning birding around the Canopy Tower.
Day three – 2 October 2016 – Canopy Tower
Bird species today – 91
Total trip bird species – 135
Total new birds for the trip – 36
Bird of the day – Rosy Thrush-tanager
I’m sitting on the deck at the Canopy Tower as I type my daily diary entry. The sun has just gone down and the lights of Panama City are twinkling in the distance to the south.
It has been another excellent day and I am going to avoid too much hyperbole as it might get a little trite.
I will admit, though, that the laws of diminishing returns are starting to kick in and, although we added a lot of birds today, you can see that things are already slowing down quite noticeably. This afternoon was particular tough as many of the birds are becoming commonplace and so we are needing to target a few specific birds and you miss more often than you hit.
The day started with 90 minutes spent on the deck of the Tower. Overnight, the rain moved on and although it was a little misty early on, it wasn’t long before the sun came out and made for a birding and viewing spectacle.
The species count wasn’t outrageous but we saw a few very special birds. It was important to nail one of the “must see” birds which was a Green Shrike-vireo. It has a plaintive peep-peep-peep call which onomatopoeically translates to “can’t see me”. It is a quiet little feeder and since it is a bright green it blends in with the canopy very nicely. One of our guides got onto one quite early on and Simon was able to breathe easier as he was particularly stressed that we may miss it once one of our companions told us it took him ten years to find his first one. Simon was magnanimous, shortly after it was under the belt, by mentioning to Scott that it took him nine years and 364 days shorter than it took Scott to see it.
Apologies for the terrible photo but it is a tricky little bird to photograph and it was quite far away.
Anyway, the birds of the viewing deck are better described in pictures.
After a gobbled breakfast we took a walk down Semaphore Hill Road, which is the winding road that takes you back to sea level and the canal. It is only about 4kms long but it took us the entire morning to walk. Once again, our species count wasn’t enormous but we were fortunate to find an ant swarm that is what you hope for in these tropical forests. The army ants travel in frantic swarms across the forest floor and, in doing so, they flush little insects, which are the source of food of all the antbirds. Having found our ant swarm we were able to find antbirds, antwrens, antshrikes and a whole bunch of other birds that go along with these feeding frenzies.
One of the highlights of the walk was when Domi (our guide) found a Hoffman’s Two-toed Sloth in a tree just before we headed back up for lunch. It would be tough to come all the way to Panama and not see a sloth, but it was even more rewarding to find the two-toed variety which is far tougher to find than the three-toed one.
After a good lunch we headed down to the Summit Ponds, which is an area down by the canal, not far from the Canopy Tower.
As I mentioned above, the going was a little tougher because we were targeting a few difficult species and we ended up missing most of them. We came within inches of seeing a Little Tinamou, a White-bellied Antbird and a Rufous-breasted Wren but they all eluded us. We did, however, eventually get a Black-tailed Flycatcher and the bird of the day, which was a Rosy Thrush-tanager.
Simon is a little disappointed that I picked this one over the Green Shrike-vireo, but since this is my diary he will have to live with it. The reason I picked the Thrush-tanager was possibly due to the unbelievable amount of effort we went through to see it. The sun had almost set and we were on our way back to the tower when Domi heard one calling in the thickest of thickets. We spent almost half an hour peering through the tangles before we all eventually managed to see it. It was a comical affair as we positioned the scope in different places to try and get everyone a view. Aliens from outer space would have been patronizingly amused by this strange human behaviour.
Anyway, there was absolutely no chance of getting a photo of the bird so you will just have to live with this screen grab from the internet.
Below are a few other birds I managed to photograph at the Summit Ponds.
Tomorrow we take another trip down to Pipeline Road where we will surely experience a little more.
Day four – 3 October 2016 – Canopy Tower
Bird species today – 122
Total trip bird species – 166
Total new birds for the trip – 30
Bird of the day – Ocellated Antbird
Today we went back to the Pipeline Road. We were up really early and made sure we were on Pipeline before it got too hot.
Forest birding in the tropics is actually quite hard work. The birds feed in parties and there are long periods during which there is virtually no activity at all. It can be quite stressful when you have been birding for 30 minutes and the list is still on 12 species. What you really have to remember, though, is that when those feeding parties come through, you have to be wide awake as it is frantic for a few minutes and then it suddenly all goes quiet.
Pipeline Road, this morning, was just like that. We spent almost five hours working our way along the worst road imaginable and we eked out species here and there until we eventually had around 60 species. As we always say – it is not about quantity but rather quality.
We saved the best for last, though. We were on our way back for lunch and were about to exit the Road when we came across a feeding flock which had Keel-billed Toucans, Crimson-crested Woodpecker, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, Greater Ani and Black-chested Jay.
Our guide, Domi, screeched to a halt and we all jumped out to get good views of all these excellent birds. We had spent much of the morning looking for an Ocellated Antbird, which is one of the true specials of the area. We had had virtually no success, mainly because we had not found an ant swarm. As we bundled out of the car, Domi heard a few antbirds calling and he managed to isolate a calling Ocellated Antbird. It was deep in the forest and down a slippery hillside, across a river and then through a thick tangle. Added to that was the clear and present danger of stepping on the line of army ants, as their bites are quite memorable.
It is at this point that it is important to distinguish between birdwatching and birding. If we were birdwatching, we would have remarked that it was a pity the Ocellated Antbird was so far away and we would have headed back to the Tower for lunch. But, we were birding. Domi didn’t hesitate for a second and plunged down the slope and headed towards the source of the calling bird. We didn’t need a second invitation.
It was true adventure birding, but that is the most rewarding kind. After sweating our way through the forest we eventually reached the heart of the ant swarm and within a minute or two we had found our bird of the day – an Ocellated Antbird. High fives are corny, but they were shared amongst us in the forest with sweat dripping off our foreheads and down our backs and a few army ant bites for our troubles. It was definitely the highlight of our trip so far.
We returned to the lodge for lunch and sat out a massive thunderstorm and then headed out to the Gamboa Resort for our afternoon session. Here the birding was very different and the birds came thick and fast in the more open and varied habitat. We notched up 69 species in a very quick two hours and, all in all, we racked up a respectable 122 species for the day. The most memorable thing about Gamboa, however, may have been the extreme humidity down by the river and the number of mosquitoes that plagued us as we wandered amongst the damp areas. It was hard not to think we were birding and not birdwatching.
Tomorrow is our last full day at the tower and so we are going back to Pipeline for some more birding adventures.
Day four – 4 October 2016 – Canopy Tower
Bird species today – 120
Total trip bird species – 192
Total new birds for the trip – 26
Bird of the day – Barred Forest-falcon
Our day started at around 6am with a Scaly-throated Leaftosser, and it has just concluded with a Common Nighthawk as I sit on the deck of the Tower and watch the lights of Panama City starting to twinkle down in the distance.
When we drove back up Semaphore Hill Road this evening, to get back to the tower, I remarked that it felt like three days ago that we saw that Leaftosser. I guess that is how things go when we jam so much into a day.
Today was our last day at Canopy Tower and we asked Domi to help us find a lot of our missing birds. He suggested that the best way to “clean up” would be to go straight back to Pipeline Road, and so that is what we did.
Pipeline Road is legendary for good reason. Every time you go it will produce something different. It was our third bash at it, but this time we were a bit earlier and we actually spent much longer there today.
We notched up 67 species with about 15 new birds for the trip. And, considering that we have already seen a lot of the birds in this area, those 15 were particularly good.
We had two noteworthy moments. The first was when we walked “off piste” into the forest to follow a calling Song Wren. As we stepped past vines and roots, Domi stopped us suddenly and said “Great Tinamou!”
Tinamous are large chicken-like birds that are notoriously difficult to find. They are most active early in the morning and at dusk when their mournful calls tremble through the forest (there is one calling as I type this), but they are far more seldom seen than they are heard. I had not expected to see a tinamou on this trip, but there it was right in front of us. Incidentally, we also saw the Song Wren.
The second noteworthy moment was when we again went off piste and followed the trail of an ant swarm. Domi and Simon quickly tucked their long trousers into their socks and I was left staring blankly while I contemplated the army ant invasion on my exposed hairy legs as I had chosen to wear shorts this morning.
Anyway, it was with great care that I stepped under large thorny hanging trees, stepped around these palm trees that have large black spikes sticking out of them and stepped over the millions of ants that were moving through the forest.
The risk of running an ant swarm gauntlet is rewarded with potentially great birds.
We saw the usual ensemble of antbirds, which included Bicoloured and Ocellated (it is amazing how the bird of the day quickly becomes a trash bird) but the bird of this day was a very obliging Barred Forest-falcon that was perched on a low branch watching all the frantic ant activity below it. Domi told us that the Barred Forest-falcon is actually an insect eater, hence its presence at the ant swarm. If I were born as a Forest-falcon I would feel a little cheated. The rest of them are generally bird eaters.
So, Pipeline Road delivered the goods once again and we were left with a drive around the Chagres River in the afternoon to add a few species that we had missed along the way. They were mostly pretty dull looking flycatchers and warblers but we were very pleased to keep the list ticking along nicely.
The sun finally set on the Canopy Tower.
It has been a phenomenal experience being in a place that is just so well suited for birders. We have at least three hours on the deck tomorrow morning before our transfer to Canopy Lodge, which is about two hours west of the canal.
Here are a few more pics from today:
Day five – 5 October 2016 – Canopy Lodge
Bird species today – 92
Total trip bird species – 216
Total new birds for the trip – 22
Bird of the day – Spot-crowned Barbet
Today was moving day. Our time at the Canopy Tower had come to an end and we were heading west for three nights at the cousin property called Canopy Lodge. Canopy Tower was the original and was followed a few years later by the Lodge.
Our shuttle was only leaving at 10am so it gave us a solid four hour chunk of time to spend on the observation deck. In fact, you can make that three hours and fifty two minutes as I think it may have taken me all of eight minutes to eat my breakfast.
Despite the fact that we had already spent many hours up on the deck we still managed to add a few extra birds. We had a great look at a tiny little bird called a Black-headed Tody-flycatcher and Domi managed to hear a Slate-coloured Grosbeak which eventually made an appearance. We also had our best look at a Keel-billed Toucan, which perched so very nicely for my camera.
Simon and I had a moment of absolute fear after Domi left to take another group on an excursion. We were left on the deck by ourselves, which was a bit frightening when there was the prospect that something new might pop up.
And that was exactly what happened.
Simon pointed out a bird that he initially thought was a Tropical Kingbird (a super common and trash status bird), but we quickly realized that it was one of the tyrant flycatchers.
As a quick aside it is worth mentioning that the Neotropics are damned with the tyrant flycatcher family. In Panama alone there are about 100 different species of flycatchers and even though there are a few that are quite easy to identify (the Black-headed Tody-flycatcher is a good example), most of them are just awful to tell apart. I hate to say this but we have relied very heavily on our guides as their calls and habits are the only way to tell them apart and we just don’t have that kind of experience.
Anyway, sweat formed quickly on my brow as we stared at this bird and millions of names rushed past before we settled on Great Crested Flycatcher. I fortunately managed to get some photos of it and we were able to confirm our competence a few hours later when we showed the photo to a guide.
Anyway, we departed at 10am and travelled over the Centennial Bridge over the canal and headed on the main highway west before taking a turn north towards the highlands. Unfortunately we just don’t have enough time on this trip to spend any time in the highlands of Panama proper, but the Canopy Lodge is in the foothills and it is more than adequate to get a whole bunch of extra birds.
We arrived at the far cooler locality of the Lodge near a quaint town called El Valle. It wouldn’t surprise you to hear that it is set in a small valley amongst some reasonably sized forested hills.
The Lodge itself is a magnificent property. It is set on the edge of a fast-flowing stream and if Gandalf and Legolas sat down for dinner with us it wouldn’t surprise me at all. Well, it just happens to be with a few of our favourite birders from Texas, which is almost as good as being joined by a thousand year old wizard.
Our arrival was met with a sizeable downpour, which continued into our bird walk at 3pm. Ordinarily a bird walk may be cancelled in these conditions, but our time here is short and so we pushed on. It was a good thing we did as the Bird of the Day candidates made their appearance in quick succession. It was a toss up between the Spot-crowned Barbet and the Yellow-billed Cuckoo but ultimately the specialty bird won the day over the migrant (for those that can’t figure that out, it is the barbet that wins the award).
It is so good to be in a different location, not only to keep the list marching on, but also to experience something different. The humidity levels and temperature are much more to my liking so let us hope that the weather holds and the birding is excellent.
Day six – 6 October 2016 – Canopy Lodge
Bird species today – 92
Total trip bird species – 231
Total new birds for the trip – 25
Bird of the day – Tody Motmot
Before launching into today’s update it is worth mentioning that Simon and I ended up sharing a dinner table last night with four English people who are on a Panamanian butterfly tour. Apparently there are 1,800 species of butterfly in Panama and so, if you are into butterflies, it is a pretty good place to come. It must be said, though, that if you think birding is niche then butterfly-ing (or whatever it is called) is on a whole different level. It is so niche that no one has ever written a book on Panamanian butterflies. We were also forewarned (before being allocated our seating) that it is no longer acceptable to chase butterflies with a net and stick pins in them, so we were on our best behavior and acted as politely as was possible. We still received some disapproving glances as we tried to explore the hobby from a zero base.
Anyway, on to today’s update.
This morning, in my opinion, was the best period of birding we have had on our trip so far. We visited a few forested areas on the top of the ridge that overlooks the town of El Valle, and I suspect that the movement through a number of habitats during the course of the morning contributed to the variety of birds we saw. Our count was 82 species and I personally saw 19 lifers. I did expect a large number given the new area we were in, but it was still an excellent return for our efforts.
Danilo led us to a section of fruiting trees and it was manic as we frantically worked through all the birds that were gorging on the berries to make sure we didn’t miss anything. In that 15 minutes alone I got four lifers in the form of Black-faced Grosbeak, Tennessee Warbler, Bay-headed Tanager and Scarlet-thighed Dacnis.
The best stretch, however, was a small section of forest where a Spotted Woodcreeper, Orange-bellied Trogon and Emerald Tanager were added to our list. These were three pretty notable birds and so a chest-bump was called for (one step up from a high five).
We did have one significant failure, which was missing out on the White-tipped Sicklebill, a funny looking hummer that feeds on the heliconia flowers (a pretty forest hanging plant). There was a stakeout that Danielo took us to and we spent about 45 minutes in a mosquito-dense section of the forest without seeing the Sicklebill.
There was some degree of compensation for the sweaty wait and the hundreds of mosquitoes, which was a great sighting of a Song Wren on its nest and a Black-chested Jay that perched for more than a split second, which it usually does.
It seems like the weather patterns here are on a schedule, as another thunder storm rumbled through just as we sat down for lunch and, with five minutes to go before our afternoon session, when all hope seemed to be lost, the rain stopped and we never got wet at all as we birded the Pacific Dry Forest on the other side of the valley. As I mentioned, we were in the dry forest in the afternoon and I have to be honest and say that I need to know a little bit more about trees and plants because I couldn’t really tell the difference between the habitat we were in this morning and that which we birded in the afternoon (the botanists all despair as I say this).
Anyway, it was significant that the habitat was different as we had one specific target which comfortably took the spot of Bird of the Day. Well, I say comfortably, but a pair of frisky Spectacled Owls was a relatively close second place, when one thinks about it, but the Tody Motmot was easily number one.
When I started doing my research for this trip, the one family that just blew my mind was the motmots. There are four possible species in Panama and we had ticked the “easy” three, being Whooping, Broad-billed and Rufous. They are all spectacular birds but the real special is the cute one – Tody Motmot. Danilo took us down into the forest and, after a fair amount of patience, one perched nice and close. Unfortunately the photos are terrible as the light was close to zero but it still doesn’t stop it being numero uno for the day.
Tomorrow we are off to an area of highlands and cloud forest called Altos del Maria, which is sure to produce a few more good birds. We have some very specific targets, but I won’t mention them as it may jinx it.
Here are two woodpecker shots from today to finish off. Woodpeckers are my favourite family of birds and the Lineated is a pretty awesome one. It was a lifer for me today. The Red-crowned is Panama’s most common woodpecker.
Day seven – 7 October 2016 – Canopy Lodge
Bird species today – 72
Total trip bird species – 261
Total new birds for the trip – 18
Bird of the day – Blue-throated Toucanet
While we have been in the care of the Canopy company, our days have had a metronomic routine to them – up at 6am, quick breakfast, off birding until 12:30, lunch, downtime during the daily thunderstorm (and it has certainly been daily), off birding again at 3pm, back at 6pm, shower, list call-out at 6:45 (just to make sure every bird lands up safely on the list), dinner at 7, blogging at 8, bed at 9:30.
Today was a little different. And if you think that means we took a break from birding, then you would be wrong. Au contraire. Today we were out for the entire day.
We spent our day about 45 minutes east of El Valle in a highland area called Altos del Maria, which translates simply to Maria’s Mountain. Situated at around 1000m in altitude, it was a good 400m higher than where the Canopy Lodge is situated. And that is really the way birding works in the tropics. Elevation really is everything and, just a few hundred metres up or down, produces new species.
I had always envisaged that Altos del Maria was a national park, or just untouched forest on public land, but, in fact, it is privately owned land which has been converted into a gated estate. Much like Dainfern or Fancourt, but without the golf courses, clubhouses, spas and, in fact, without the houses. It appears that these estates all seemed to be great ideas before the global financial crisis, but a few years on they are still mostly empty.
Fortunately the property is accessible to the Canopy Company and it allows for some convenient birding along nicely tarred roads, with the occasional mini golf course and picnic area where the habitat is a little more open.
The road to del Maria is a fearsome one, particularly if you are a cyclist. I reckon there are sections where the gradient is more than 30%. I know I wouldn’t be able to ride up some of the sections, but I did long for my bike because I sure as hell would have given it a good crack.
It was at one of these sections that we made our first stop. It was incredibly quiet to start with, but we picked up new birds with regularity. The first new bird of the day was ultimately THE Bird of the Day, being a Blue-throated Toucanet (way too far for a photograph unfortunately). Other birds popped out, here and there, and, by the time we moved on, I already had about six or seven new birds.
Incidentally, it is worth mentioning that some of the birding we have had is quite different to what you may think. Tropical birding is not constant activity with birds everywhere, all the time. The forest goes from deathly quiet to frantic activity and then back to deathly quiet all in the space of a few minutes. It is largely a function of feeding flocks or ant swarms passing by. It is really only at fruiting trees where activity is constant. The special birds have to be picked up one at a time and sometimes you can go for a good hour or two without seeing any birds at all, never mind any new ones. Today was a little like that.
We had our fair share of frustration today as well. We got, oh so close, to seeing a bird called a Brown-billed Scythebill, which would have comfortably taken top spot for the day, but it just remained out of view while it called from behind a large mossy tree (we got some compensatory lifers and photographs while we waited for it to appear).
We also saw a bunch of females of iconic target birds. We saw females of Orange-bellied Trogon, Snowcap (an outrageous looking hummingbird) and White-ruffed Manakin, instead of the far better looking males. And that comment is not meant to be sexist, it’s just the truth. Those dull females just don’t feel like a full tick.
We also missed out on a Black-crowned Antpitta, which was probably my number one bird for the entire trip. We tried and tried but we just had no response and then it all fell apart when we were at the last likely spot and the heavens opened. We managed to get to the car before we were washed away but it did put a rather large spanner in the afternoon birding works.
It wasn’t only the birding that was affected by the storm. We also had a rather hair-raising drive back down to El Valle. The first nervy moment was when we were parked up at Altos del Maria when Danilo looked to his left and the embankment alongside of us started to come down in a landslide. It wasn’t quite life threatening just at that moment, but we did feel a hasty retreat was a good idea.
We then negotiated all the steep corners, rather carefully, until arriving at the low causeway over the river that feeds down from the mountain. It was, not unexpectedly, in full flood with fallen trees trapped in the middle of the road. We were well and truly stuck on the wrong side of home with no immediate prospects of going anywhere. The rain was still teeming down so all we could really do was sit and wait.
We waited for about two hours and eventually some very well-meaning local villagers risked life and limb to dislodge some of the trees that had become trapped on the river crossing. It took them about an hour to eventually get everything loose and then we were able to get home. To be honest, it took a good deal shorter than I expected. I had visions of spending the night waiting for the water to recede.
It was a pity that the afternoon was a total washout as I feel a little cheated out of a few birds. Having said that, though, we have been pretty lucky with the weather, so I shouldn’t complain.
Tomorrow we leave at 3:30am (yes, that early) to fetch Domi from Panama City and then we head to the deep, dark part of Panama which is the Darien. I am very excited to get there although it is back in the lowlands and I am a little frightened about how hot and humid it is going to be.
Day eight – 8 October 2016 – Canopy Camp
Bird species today – 92
Total trip bird species – 281
Total new birds for the trip – 20
Bird of the day – Sapayoa
Today has been a very long day. We always knew it would be, but when it played itself out, it seemed even longer.
We woke up at 3am and left Canopy Lodge at 3:30 and headed east. We first picked up Domi, somewhere on the motorway. I think it was just after crossing the canal, but it was pouring with rain and it was still very dark, so it could have been anywhere.
We then picked up our two Canadian companions (Bruno and David) from the Riande Hotel near the airport and drove a further 90 minutes before reaching Nusagandi Forest Reserve which would be our only real birding stop on the way to the Darien.
Bruno told us, just after meeting him, that the sole reason for coming to Panama was to see a Harpy Eagle. He had been here in January (at the Canopy Camp in the Darien) and he failed to see one then so, when they discovered a new nest site near the Camp, he booked his ticket for a second attempt. The “Harpy excursion” as it will come to be known is now a specialist day on our itinerary whilst at the Camp, but I won’t spoil any of that now so I can describe it in full detail when we get to it.
The Nusagandi Reserve is a patch of Caribbean slope forest north of the Pan-American highway. In fact, you can actually see the Caribbean Sea from the tops of the hills that we drove through to get there. It was almost as windy a road as we had yesterday but, fortunately, we weren’t completely rained out (it did rain a little but it didn’t really affect our birding much).
The Nusagandi Forest is well known for one rather interesting bird. It is called a Sapayoa and its scientific name really says it all – Sapayoa aenigma.
The taxonomists have bounced this thing around between flycatchers, manakins and broadbills but, eventually, they decided they would stick it in its own family and simply call it an enigma.
We donned our wellies (for the first time I might add) and traipsed through some pristine forest into two separate river valleys while listening for its strange insect-like trilling.
I must add an aside here and say that I had actually heard of a Sapayoa before I even started planning this trip. I read Noah Strycker’s Big Year diary religiously last year and I recalled a blog of his from Panama, which was dedicated to the Sapayoa. He described it very similarly to me (I run a plagiarism risk here but I promise these are mostly my own thoughts) and he remarked how unbelievably lucky he was to see one of these great birds. Well, the same thing applied to us today.
Domi told us after we saw it that we were the first group this entire year that he had managed to show it to.
I used the word great above, but I should probably caveat that. It is certainly a great bird for me, as it is seriously localized and seriously rare and requires great effort to see, but it is about as unremarkable as you get. It is entirely a dull olive colour and it pretty much sits in the mid-canopy and hawks for the occasional insect. We did see a few other, slightly more colourful, birds which I managed to get a few pics of.
I do hope you all appreciate this, despite it being such a bland bird.
After the great success of the Sapayoa and the incidental lifers we picked up along the way, we piled back into the van and started the very long and exhausting drive east to Canopy Camp.
The Pan-American highway more or less peters out to a potholed nightmare of a road as you enter the Darien Province and it was a rather bumpy ride until we eventually got to the Camp.
I had lower expectations than I had had for the other two camps. I’m not exactly sure why, but perhaps it was because it is such a remote site in a relatively inaccessible area, but I literally couldn’t believe my eyes when we arrived.
The dining area and lounge are completely open to the surrounding forest and beautifully designed to fit in with the environment. The accommodation is safari-style tents, which are all extremely well equipped, with verandahs that look out into the forest and open air showers that have the same view.
But, what caught my attention immediately, was the activity around the hummingbird feeders that were situated on the edge of the lounge area. The previous lodges also had feeders but activity was relatively limited and the species count was lower. Here the birds were zipping in and out in huge numbers and within about five minutes I had added six new species of hummingbirds to my list – Sapphire-throated Hummingbird, Long-billed Starthroat, Rufous-crested Coquette (another female only!), Pale-bellied Hermit and Scaly-breasted Hummingbird. Add to that Blue-chested Hummingbird, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird and Violet-bellied Hummingbird and that made it nine species in one small little area.
I tried my hand at some hummingbird photography and managed some degree of success. I am most proud of the coquette as it is hardly bigger than a bumblebee and required a steady hand as it buzzed around a nearby flowering bush.
We finished the day with a casual walk around the gardens of the camp and actually managed three or four more new birds.
Day nine – 9 October 2016 – Canopy Camp
Bird species today – 92
Total trip bird species – 298
Total new birds for the trip – 17
Bird of the day – King Vulture
Today was the big anticipation day before the Harpy Eagle adventure, which comes tomorrow. It was also a day to familiarise ourselves with a few of the new Darien birds, so most of our birding was around the camp.
We spent about four hours walking the bumpy road into the lodge and then we scrambled up and down Nando’s trail, which took us into some of the primary forest on the property (there was no Portuguese chicken to be had).
The day started with a bang. We had hardly finished breakfast when Dave, one of our newly met Canadian friends, called us onto the lawn to look at a raptor perched just above the roof of the camp building. It took less than one second for Simon to identify it as a King Vulture. Now, most vultures are reasonably drab brown to look at and then we do have a reasonably colourful one back in South Africa in White-headed, but this one clearly steals the show.
It is also a bird that I had hoped to see, but having been here for over a week it had become apparent that it is not necessarily a guaranteed bird. Furthermore, most sightings of King Vulture are of a distant speck on the horizon or circling in the distance. This one was perched virtually above our heads in a cecropia tree. Incidentally, the cecropia tree is a firm fixture in the tropics and a lot of birds are seen in them, not necessarily because they are full of fruit, but mainly because they are the sparsest trees around and the birds are easiest to see in them. This vulture was pretty easy to see initially in the cecropia and then it moved into the forest underneath the canopy, but still in perfect position for some good photo opportunities.
The King Vulture ultimately was awarded Bird of the Day status but it was closely followed, for me, by a stunning Laughing Falcon that flew close by and landed in a nearby tree (this time not a cecropia!).
The Laughing Falcon was a special bird for me to see on this trip. When I was in standard eight at high school (grade 10), I won some academic award at the end of the year and my prize was a coffee table book on raptors of the world. I recall so clearly opening it up onto a full-page illustration of a Laughing Falcon perched in a tropical forest. Since then it has been a raptor I have always wanted to see. Little did I know that it would take me a full 28 years to do so.
The rest of the walk produced plenty of other great birds, one of the best of which was a Golden-headed Manakin. There is a book by a guy by the name of Dominic Cousins called “100 birds to see before you die”, and I think Golden-headed Manakin is the second of the 100 that I have actually seen. The other is a Cape Sugarbird, which doesn’t require as much effort for me to see as this manakin did.
The morning walk was curtailed a little by yet another downpour (have I mentioned that we have seen a lot of rain?) and so we had a little downtime before lunch.
The afternoon session was close to being a total bust. We drove for about 45 minutes in a south-easterly direction to try find some wetland birds but, having arrived there, the rain was teeming down, so we decided to head north-west. I know there are people in this world who chase storms but we were doing the opposite. We were chasing blue sky. We never really succeeded and ended up consoling ourselves with a few birds down by a patch of mangroves alongside Panama’s widest river (the Tuira River). It was desperate stuff as we all crammed under the roof of a dodgy building alongside the wharf, trying to eke out some mangrove specials.
We were unsuccessful.
So, an early night tonight before a 3am start tomorrow morning.
Day ten – 10 October 2016 – Canopy Camp
Bird species today – 72
Total trip bird species – 320
Total new birds for the trip – 22
Bird of the day – Ummmm….Harpy Eagle
I certainly built it up a lot and I’ve really given it all away by naming my Bird of the Day at the top of this entry, but today was well and truly Harpy Eagle day.
The Harpy Eagle is one of the world’s most iconic raptors, if not numero uno. It is not only very close to being the largest and most powerful raptor worldwide, but it is also exceptionally rare and, added to that, it lives its life entirely below the canopy, preying on sloths and monkeys, so, even when there is one around, it is almost impossible to see. Rare stuff just seems to hold higher status than non-rare stuff in this weird birding world of ours.
It also is very aptly Panama’s national bird and it was very high up on Simon’s agenda for this trip. In fact, he admitted to me earlier today that he swayed our destination of choice, from Costa Rica to Panama, for the sole reason of finding a Harpy Eagle. I was clearly not in as much control of the planning as I had thought.
Simon was not the only Harpy obsessor in our group. We had Bruno, the Canadian, join us on Sunday for his second attempt at Harpy in the Darien, after he missed out on it when he was out here in January. When Bruno heard that a nest had been found on a local farmer’s land, and was a firm itinerary of the Canopy Company Darien week, he booked his flight immediately. Not many people “twitch” a Harpy Eagle, but Bruno was doing exactly that.
Now, talking about the local farmer.
About three months ago a farmer living in a remote area about 50 kms north-east of Canopy Camp had regular sightings of a Harpy flying through the forest in a consistent direction. So, he did what makes perfect sense – he followed the bird, piecing together glimpses of it on separate occasions, and eventually hit the jackpot by finding the active nest in a towering cuipo tree (the cuipo tree is the most impressive tropical tree, in my opinion, as it towers above almost every other tree and has this enormous straight trunk leading up to a relatively small canopy).
The Harpy is so iconic in Panama that local farmers realise the value they hold in having a nesting bird, and so he told the Canopy Company about it immediately and, a few scouting sessions later, it became part of their itinerary.
We just so happened to get lucky with our timing of when our trip was booked, but one needs a little luck every now and again.
Getting to the nest site was no mean feat.
We left the camp at 4am, drove for an hour and a half on one of the bumpiest roads imaginable and then bundled into dugout canoes with outboard motors and travelled for an hour up one river (the Chuchunaque River) and then an hour and a half up a tributary of the main river (the Membrillo River), arriving at a small clearing in the forest on the river bank. It was then an hour’s hike through a hot and humid forest before arriving at the nest.
Despite the long travel to get there, you may think a lined-up nest is quite contrived, but I can assure you, from many year’s experience with so called ‘dead certs’, that none of us were counting our Harpy Eagles before they hatched (sorry, worst mixed metaphor ever). The adults may have been out hunting, the chick may have died, the storms we’d had may have taken the nest down. We just didn’t know.
But, fortunately none of those things came to pass.
As we approached the gap in the trees, Alexander, the farmer, requested we keep quiet and, with that, the heart was thumping as I peered through the small gap and there she was perched on the edge of the nest preening.
It was an absolutely amazing sight.
We spent about an hour and a half at the nest and, during that time, I probably took over three hundred photos of it in every imaginable pose. But, we weren’t only restricted to the sitting female. We were also extremely fortunate to see the male as well. We heard the male long before we saw it as it screeched from a nearby perch, before eventually flying into the nest. The two adult birds then proceeded to feed the chick over a period of about 45 minutes. The mantled howler monkeys weren’t too pleased, based on their howling, but everyone in our group had huge smiles, which included our guides who also don’t get much opportunity to see this bird.
Included in our entourage for the journey was Alexander and about five of his mates. There was the obvious language barrier, and there was also their lack of knowledge of the significance of this sighting, but they quickly joined the merriment as they saw how much it meant to us and, before long, they were looking through the scopes and appreciating the show on offer.
So, today was really all about the Harpy, but that didn’t mean that we didn’t see other great birds. We were on a bit of a time schedule, given the extremely long day, but we spent some time birding in the forest on the walk to the nest (well, as long as we were allowed by Bruno who was in a single-minded push for the nest).
On any other day the Red-billed Scythebill that we saw would have easily scored Bird of the Day, but today it was a little overshadowed. Interestingly, it (the scythebill) was in my top five birds to see on this trip and it is also in that Dominic Cousins’ book of ‘100 birds to see before you die’. Oh, by the way, it is a bit of an injustice that the Harpy Eagle is not in that book, as it was pipped by the other iconic monkey-eating eagle, the Philippine Eagle, which is possibly a fraction rarer than the Harpy.
Anyway, the scythebill was a cracker, as was Bare-crowned Antbird, Black-tailed Trogon and my first jacamar, Great Jacamar.
Following the excitement of the eagle we traveled a bit further upstream to the village of Sinai (pronounced sin-u-i) in order to pay the community for hosting us, as well as to settle the payment to Alexander. It was the easiest $40 any of us had ever paid.
We enjoyed our lunch under the corrugated roof of the open air town hall and shade was very welcome, as the heat and humidity had cranked up to uncomfortable levels. It was really our first immersion into local culture and so it was good to put into perspective how fortunate we all are. The camera and optical equipment we offloaded from the dugout canoes was more than these villagers will earn in their lifetimes (and I’m combining all the villagers when I say that).
The trip home was a very long one, but it was a particularly satisfactory one. We added quite a few new birds to our trip list, especially on that dreadful bumpy road where we had a surfeit of raptors, which is something we have lacked a little on this trip. The most significant raptor was the Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture which is the last vulture on the Panamanian bird list that we needed to see (having ticked Black, Turkey and King). Appropriately, Domi said that we could now shout “Bingo” having completed the set.
I’ve insisted that Bruno joins me in a proper drink tonight when we can discuss his life’s meaning from here onwards now that the Harpy box has been ticked.
Tomorrow we slow the pace down a little with a 6am starting time where we will cover a few areas far closer to the Camp. I may even have another crack at some hummingbird pics.
Day eleven – 11 October 2016 – Canopy Camp
Bird species today – 96
Total trip bird species – 335
Total new birds for the trip – 11
Bird of the day – Blue Ground-dove
Well, any day that follows a day with a Harpy Eagle is always going to be anticlimactic. One only has to look at my Bird of the Day to see that we have gone from one of the world’s most iconic birds to a Blue Ground-dove. Yes, a dove.
Today was still a good day, as it involved birding and any day that involves birding has to be good in my books.
We travelled a little less today than yesterday, but all excursions from Canopy Camp involve some rather tedious travel. The birding spots all radiate from the Pan-American highway and it is the most awful road, particularly considering it is the main road from America into Central America. The road surface is generally very poor, with innumerable potholes, and they are busy all along its length with road works. They don’t quite work with formal stop-gos here in Panama, but there is a lot of waiting for single lane traffic to clear.
Our morning session was on El Salto Road, which travels eastwards off the Pan-American highway down to the Chuchunaque River, which is one of the main rivers of this area. The road travels through mixed habitat, with quite a few open areas where it is a little easier to see the birds.
We had great birding along the road, with great views of Black-tailed and White-tailed Trogons and three separate sightings of male Blue Cotingas, which is a hugely special bird for Panama (it holds pride of place in the Panama Bird Field Guide as the cover illustration). It is a crazy looking blue and purple bird and we had not been lucky enough to have any decent sightings of the male bird to this point.
It was another sweltering day with the humidity as high as ever, but at least I was able to don my shorts as we weren’t crawling through ant-infested lowland forest. I tend to take my chances with the mosquitoes.
The Blue Ground-dove was a lucky find. It is a tricky species to get as it is forest dwelling and, unlike its very common Ruddy cousin, it is shy and retiring. Domi spotted one in a section of forest and only a few of us managed to see it before it dived back under cover. We thought it was the last we’d ever see of it but 30 seconds later it popped up again. And then it disappeared with only a few more seeing it. Then 30 seconds later, there it was again. With a slightly closer look we suddenly realised that it was returning to the same spot every time. It could only be a nest. We pulled out the scopes and there was the female on the nest, with the male attending to her every whim. It wasn’t quite a pair of Harpy Eagles on a nest, but it was still a very cool bird.
It was a quick turnaround at lunchtime, as our afternoon objective was to reach the end of the Pan-American highway at a small town called Yaviza. It meant heading back onto the highway and travelling south-east, literally to the end of the road.
Our trip to Yaviza was a little less about birding than about doing something unique. The Pan-American Highway has never been completed due to the wildness of southern Panama (the Darien) and northern Columbia. There are a few reasons for what is called the Darien Gap. The primary reason is probably due to the inaccessibility of the area as a result of topographical reasons. It is mostly impenetrable swamp and forest, for hundreds of kilometres, and so road building is virtually impossible. Another major reason is a little more ominous, in that the northern Colombian border has been a hot bed of rebel warfare and drug cartels and safety concerns have prevented too much development in that area. The presence of malaria, yellow fever and other nasty tropical diseases is yet a further reason that it has remained undeveloped.
So, all in all, the Gap may remain unbridged for the near, middle and distant future and Yaviza is a far as you can go in Central America.
It was quite a thing arriving in the rather ramshackle town of Yaviza where the road literally comes to the deadest end of all. But we weren’t just here for the photo opportunities.
Domi suggested we try call up a Bicoloured Wren in the Yaviza cemetery. So, we all traipsed into the cemetery (which is adjacent to the end of the road) and we picked our way amongst the graves and tombstones and tried to call up the wren. Domi told us that it was a very new record for Panama so it would have been something to see but, unfortunately, it wasn’t around.
From the highest point of the cemetery we were able to look over the confluence of the Chucunaque and Tuira Rivers where dugout canoes were lined up on the bank available for transporting people to villages that are unreachable by road. While we were birding, the town was going about its daily life and kids were playing in the next door school while others were jumping off a bridge into the river.
From our vantage point of the cemetery we were also able to see the advancing storm, which resulted us engaging in yet another game of chasing the blue sky. Unsurprisingly, we lost the battle again and the weather quickly closed in and put paid to the remainder of the afternoon’s birding. Just before the heavens opened we were able to see our last new bird of the day, which was a smart little bird called a Pied Water-tyrant. It was also fascinating to see the Swainson’s Hawks migrating overhead. We are currently in Panama in the height of migration season and yesterday we had huge numbers of Broad-winged Hawks flying over.
The plan was to do some owling tonight, but the rain is still bucketing down and I won’t be that sad to get a reasonably early night.
Tomorrow we hit the Pan-American Highway for the umpteenth time and take a road that radiates south-west.
Day twelve – 12 October 2016 – Canopy Camp
Bird species today – 121
Total trip bird species – 347
Total new birds for the trip – 12
Bird of the day – Grey-cheeked Nunlet
I’ve spoken about the roads in the Darien before, but it is worth reiterating how bad they are. The Pan-American Highway is certainly not the kind of highway we know and any road that travels off the highway is generally a gravel road and in very poor condition. The reasons are obvious: there is clearly not a lot of commercial value in keeping them well graded and the rainy season destroys them with the amount of water that falls from the sky (have I mentioned how much it rains here?).
Although the Camp is centrally located, any excursion we do involves a huge amount of travel. Our journey this morning was to an area called Aligandi, which is a private farm quite close to Yaviza. It took us 90 minutes to get there and 90 minutes back. That was three hours of driving, just in the morning. The afternoon session was even worse with an hour and three quarters to a place called Aruza and the same in reverse.
The morning session was a good one, with a sighting of the Bird of the Day, Grey-cheeked Nunlet, which was definitely on my top ten list for the trip. The nunlet adorns one of the title pages of the Canopy website and it is a reasonably iconic bird for the area. Fortunately, we didn’t battle too much to get to see it and our views were saturating. There was strong competition from a woodpecker that is a special in this area, Spot-breasted Woodpecker, and a very seldom seen cuckoo called a Little Cuckoo.
The Aligandi area is mostly a mix of pastures and secondary forest but there is quite a lot of the farm that has been planted with teak, which seems to be a significant crop in this part of the world. There are few things more depressing than seeing a monoculture teak plantation right next to a patch of beautiful forest.
The birding was good initially but, today, I really felt the heat and humidity. It was a cloudy and rainy start but once the clouds parted it was sweltering and, not surprisingly, the activity dissipated.
One of the most fascinating things of the morning session was watching hundreds of raptors (mostly Turkey Vultures and Swainson’s Hawks) thermalling and then heading on their migration flyway. It was something I had never really seen before and it was impressive.
Our lunch gap was brief, as we had a long travel this afternoon to Lagunas la Aruza. We bumped along a very dodgy road, thankfully notching up one or two new birds, before we got to a large cattle farm, which is where we left the road in the 4×4 birding vehicle. Our objective was to get to a “lagoon” (which means a swamp in this part of the world) in order to find a bird called a Black-capped Donacobius, which we had tried for on at least three previous occasions. To get to the swamp we had to travel through a lesser swamp and that was where all the trouble started. Domi had visited this area in the dry season but this was a first attempt in the wet and it did not go well.
After about 400m of driving through the soggy fields, the car eventually sank into the mire and that was where we stopped for good. Added to our troubles was a front wheel puncture and we were, well and truly, going nowhere fast.
Our only option was to contact the Camp and ask them to bring a recovery vehicle, but that was at least one hour forty before they got there.
So, what do a bunch of birders do when they have 100 minutes to kill? They go birding.
We actually opted to walk to the swamp, which was about 1.5 kilometres away. It was back on with the wellies and we waded through the flooded fields to the lagunas. We crossed a few pastures and then ran the gauntlet of a field full of bulls and arrived at the Donacobius spot only to have it disappoint us again.
We had come all this way, got the car stuck and we still did not have our bird. It was, strangely, not that disappointing as there were a few compensatory birds to make up for the miss and we had managed to get a good walk through some very interesting habitat as a result of the immobile vehicle.
The journey home was complicated as we got a lift with the rescue vehicle, for a part of the journey, and then took the van for the remainder, whilst some stayed behind to see if they could salvage the vehicle that was stuck. That was an impossibility, especially as it got dark quickly and so everyone eventually got home with the job of digging the vehicle out saved for tomorrow.
It turned into a much longer day than expected, however 12 new birds wasn’t a bad haul considering the advanced stage of the trip where all the common stuff is well and truly out of the way.
Tomorrow we drive again to another river put-in. We will travel by dugout canoe on the Chucunaque once again to look for some serious specialty birds.
Day thirteen – 13 October 2016 – Canopy Camp
Bird species today – 121
Total trip bird species – 357
Total new birds for the trip – 10
Bird of the day – Dusky-backed Jacamar (although it was a close run thing)
As much as yesterday was a bit of a slog, today was a relative breeze. There were a few reasons for that. The first being that we only had about an hour in the car and, even though it was on yet another dreadful road, it was manageable for such a short space of time. The second, more important reason (before everyone criticizes me for being a Moaning Minnie about road conditions), was that we saw tons of great birds in relatively comfortable birding conditions (except for a foray onto what is called Mosquito Trail). And, finally, aside from a brief shower on a boat this morning, we did not have one other drop of rain.
Like we did the Harpy Day three days ago, today was Dusky-backed Jacamar day. It is a bird that was only recently discovered in Panama down here in the Darien and it has become a firm fixture on the Darien itinerary.
It involves a short drive off the Pan-American Highway to a boat launch called Las Penitas, a very pleasant 30 minute trip to a village called Nueva Vijia, and a very short walk into the forest for the jacamar.
Before any discussion about the birds, we were exposed today to something we just never expected here in Panama. When we arrived at Las Penitas we were firstly subjected to a reasonably serious passport and security check and, then we noticed the shed full of mostly African refugees standing and watching us as we drove down to the boat launch.
It seems as if Panama has relatively recently become part of the passage of African migrants into North America. It seems as if they get across the Atlantic in some way, landing up in Brazil, and then they work their way into Colombia and somehow travel through the waterways until arriving at a village called Nueva Vijia, which is essentially their first holding area. From there they travel by boat to Las Penitas, which is where we saw them gathered for the first time.
It was a surreal experience offloading our thousands of dollars of birding equipment, being watched by mostly male African refugees from the DRC or the Congo. Our boat launch site doubled as their bathroom and there were a number of people brushing their teeth and soaping their bodies and clothes in the river right next to us. There were a few women amongst the men and for the most part they were discrete as they removed their underwear from under a towel in order to wash them, but we also saw some women who cared very little about their nudity in front of us and the hundreds of men populating the small camp.
It was quite an extraordinary sight and I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel very uncomfortable about the fact that we were in need of nothing, in the way of food and drink, as we enjoyed an excursion up the river.
The holding area at Las Penitas was only half the experience. When we arrived at Nueva Vijia for lunch many hours later we saw the previous stage of the process, which gave us an even more uncomfortable feeling. Here was a different side. We felt for the refugees at the boat launch, but here was a traditional Panamanian village, which was now overrun by the refugees on their way to Las Penitas. It seemed a very difficult mix, where Congolese men mixed amongst the local population, with the small number of soldiers keeping coexistence peaceful. I must clarify that we saw absolutely no hostility while we were there but it is hard to imagine that it is a comfortable relationship.
It was interesting that the only passports of our group that the military wanted to check were the “Africans” amongst us – Simon and I. Fortunately we were spared from being added to the line heading to the camp.
While we ate lunch we saw several batches of refugees, in groups of about 25 or 30, being led in the front by a soldier to the exit point from the village, in order to travel down to Las Penitas. In fact, a few hours later as we took our comfortable boat trip down to Las Penitas we saw a boat full of the same refugees that we had seen being led through the village.
It was a genuinely sobering part of our day and part of our trip. We hadn’t known anything about these refugees and it was a bit of a shock to see it.
They must arrive at each part of their journey with hope of going to the next phase but each wait in a camp must be soul destroying. Some of them had small backpacks but many others simply had the clothes on their backs. Panama was just yet another stop along the way to the freedom of the United States. It must be a very small proportion that eventually makes it all the way.
Anyway, that was the “cultural” experience of the day.
The birding, on the other hand, was phenomenal. I logged over 100 species for the morning and it included 10 new birds for me, for the trip. Included in those 10 were amazing birds such as Dusky-backed Jacamar (which was almost too easy), Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Royal Flycatcher (an extraordinary looking bird), Orange-crowned Oriole and Striped Cuckoo.
The river trip was so peaceful and productive, compared with the Harpy twitch day as we were not on a time schedule. We cruised slowly up the river stopping in a few different bays to see what we could see. The jacamar stop was also very productive, in addition to the jacamars themselves. It was fascinating to watch an Orange-crowned Oriole being chased by a begging Shiny Cowbird. The poor oriole was working extremely hard to keep up with the cowbird’s enormous appetite (it was news to me that cowbirds are parasitic like cuckoos).
We then moved across to Nueva Vijia, which was our lunch stop, but before lunch we headed out on a trail which was aptly named “Mosquito Trail”. In my wisdom (mainly because of the heat) I had chosen to wear shorts, which turned out to be a rather poor idea. After making sure I was free of mosquito bites for most of the trip, I am now covered from ankle to knee with itchy bites. Initially I thought it was a poor idea to attempt the trail in the heat of the day, but Domi strode off confidently and we simply followed.
It turned out to be a great decision as we saw plenty of birds, with the cream of the crop being one of Central and South America’s most iconic birds – Royal Flycatcher. My photo does not show much, but when it raises its crest it has an outrageous bright red-fanned crest. Unfortunately we did not see the crest at all but we are led to believe that it is a very rarely seen sight.
The return to the river put in was very gentle, aside from the heat, and we were also lucky to avoid the customary afternoon thunderstorm whilst on the river.
So, we wrapped up the day after cruising past the 350 number for the trip, which was my personal target. We have one more day tomorrow where we should add a few more on the way back to Panama City.
The trip is quickly coming to an end. You’ll have to read the final instalment for my closing thoughts.
Day fourteen – 14 October 2016 – Riande Airport Hotel
Bird species today – 86
Total trip bird species – 360
Total new birds for the trip – 3
Bird of the day – Speckled Mourner
Well, I guess this is it. Day 14 has arrived. There will not be a day 15 as it involves a lot of travel and I don’t think it will be of much interest (hopefully not). Although, as I write this on my flight between Panama City and Atlanta it is noteworthy that Simon is not sitting next to me, not because he is up front in Business Class, but because he wasn’t allowed to board the flight as his US Visa is in his passport that he left at home. So, I am flying solo for the rest of the journey while Simon tries to find a solution to his travel problems. I feel absolutely awful for him as there is nothing worse when you travel internationally and plans fall apart like this.
Anyway, the trip has come to an end and as I sit here on the first leg of my journey home, it is time to conclude with some additional thoughts.
But, before I do that, perhaps a quick summary of our last day’s birding.
We left the Canopy Camp very early again and drove two hours north-west before arriving in the town of Torti, which is basically the first town you reach after crossing from the Darien Province back into Panama Province. For originality, the Panamanians named their city Panama City, which is situated in the Panama Province and that is obviously the major economic hub of the country of Panama.
Right across the road from our roadside lunch-stop restaurant is a reserve called the San Francisco Reserve, which is a mixture of pastures, secondary forest, and then the area we concentrated in, primary forest on a steep hillside. Whenever we missed a bird at some other spot during our Darien week, Domi would say “don’t worry, we can still mop that one up at San Francisco Reserve”. As it turned out most of the birds we missed at one or other spot, we managed to get somewhere else before arriving at San Francisco. It meant that there wasn’t quite as much pressure as there would have been if we’d continued to miss species.
There were still one or two outstanding, which included the only two real endemics to the accessible eastern half of Panama – Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker and Yellow Green Tyrannulet. The woodpecker was an important bird for both Simon and I, as we are both rather fond of woodpeckers, and it was a bird we had always talked about seeing when planning the trip. The tyrannulet, on the other hand, is a drab yellowish bird that seldom ventures lower than the uppermost canopy so, although it is an endemic, we hadn’t really set our hearts on it.
As it turned out we saw neither, which was a tad disappointing. We got very close to seeing the tyrannulet as it was hopping around in the tree above our heads but, ultimately, it flew yonder before we could get a tickable view. As for the woodpecker, despite some thorough searching, we didn’t even hear the little bugger.
Anyway, the reserve was still a great way to wrap up the trip as the birding was very good. It was classic forest birding with periods of silence and then bursts of activity. We picked up two new birds in the forest, being a bird with similar habits to the tyrannulet, called a Rufous-winged Antwren, and then the Bird of the Day, which was something that even got Domi excited. It was a bird called a Speckled Mourner and it is about as non-descript as you get, but Domi told us that it was a seriously difficult bird anywhere in Central America.
Our third new bird for the day was a Snowy-bellied Hummingbird, which we saw at the feeders at our lunch stop.
Oh, I forget, there was one more bird to add to our trip list. We managed to get through the entire trip without seeing a House Sparrow, but, at the checkpoint between the Darien Province and Panama Province, there was one that flew into the eaves of the office building.
Although there weren’t any other new birds we still got some repeat views of some birds we had seen earlier in the trip:
We left our lunch spot and headed for the city, driving through a few more serious thunderstorms and then arriving at the rather average Riande Hotel in the mid-afternoon.
So, I am now left to summarise a few final thoughts. I do apologise for the rambling nature of this bit, but if I don’t write my thoughts down now, I don’t think I ever will.
Panama as a birding destination
It was Central America and it was in the neotropics and my objective of this trip was to get an introduction to the birds of the tropics. I don’t think I could have picked a better place (bearing in mind that I don’t have any real frame of reference). The logistics of the Canopy Company are superb, with every single thing organized for you and a schedule that is pretty well-set and efficient.
We racked up 360 species in our two weeks and, although you can probably do that just as easily in South Africa at the right time of year, bear in mind that we did absolutely no shoreline birding, which may have added at least 20 or 30 birds to our list. The forest birding is why we came and we saw plenty of forest birds.
The forest birding is not really for the faint-hearted or casual birder. Many hours are spent walking slowly and silently through the primary forests listening for the feeding flocks and then when they come through, many of the species are high up in the canopy and it is often difficult to see them.
The guides in this part of the world, and probably in most tropical birding destinations, use laser pointers to assist birders in latching onto the bird quickly. Descriptions like “just a bit left of the large green leaf that comes off the side branch of that big tree” don’t really work, so the laser pointer is pulled out and shone onto a nearby leaf and the guide simply says “look one foot to the left of the pointer”. It works incredibly well. In fact, Simon brought along two of his own pointers and we both carried them ourselves and it worked equally well, vice versa. We would say “Domi, what is that yellowish greenish bird one foot to the left of the pointer?”
There is obviously a level of decorum that must be applied when let loose with pointers, but if used correctly they are invaluable.
Speaking about guides, we were exposed to four different canopy guides during our time in Panama but Domi was our primary guide. The guides here are phenomenal. I have used many guides in South Africa and they are all generally experts in their local patches, but these guys just seem to be on a different level. They are all equipped with Leica binoculars and scopes and a full range of calls on their sound equipment, but their true value is their ability to pick out birdcalls in the forest and then get the birders onto the birds that they hear calling. I reckon 60-70% of the birds we saw were from birdcalls picked up in the forest. The guides at the Canopy Company are obviously very well trained, as their communication and people skills were brilliant and their English is perfect, removing any language barriers.
From a personal point of view, I felt as though I got to know the birds reasonably well over the two weeks. There were the common birds, which were pretty much nailed down but, over a period of two weeks, there was enough time and repetition to get to know some of the trickier stuff as well. I made a concerted effort to learn as many calls as I could and that was the facet that I enjoyed the most. I was an absolute pain for Domi and the other guides, as I would always be asking about what birds were calling, but it helped me learn a few. It was quite rewarding at times getting it right every now and again. It was quite a weird experience not hearing a single familiar bird call initially, but I found that the best way to remember some of the calls was to associate them with similar sounds to what we hear back home. For example, the Brown-capped Tyrannulet sounds just like our Spectacled Weaver and a Black-bellied Wren has call notes identical to Black-headed Oriole.
So, all in all, it was a magic trip from a birding point of view (duh). We saw so many of the birds we wanted to, with the obvious bird of the trip being the Harpy Eagle. If I had to put together a top ten list I would list them as follows (in no particular order after the Harpy):
- Harpy Eagle
- Ocellated Antbird
- Grey-cheeked Nunlet
- Emerald Tanager
- Orange-bellied Trogon
- Red-billed Scythebill
- Spot-breasted Woodpecker
- King Vulture
- Tody Motmot
- Streak-chested Antpitta
- Royal Flycatcher
- Blue Cotinga
- Golden-headed Manakin
- Barred Forest-falcon
Okay, I said 10, but 15 is much easier.
Then, there were the birds we missed. The list is also very long but here are a few:
- Rufous-vented Ground-cuckoo
- Yellow-eared Toucanet
- White-tipped Sicklebill
- Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker
- Black-crowned Antpitta
Will I ever be back here to get those? Who knows?
Weather and Birding Conditions
We picked to come here in October as that was the time that suited our schedules. October has a few pros and it has some serious cons. The pros include the fact that it is the height of migration season so, not only did we see huge numbers of raptors migrating southwards but, we also got to see a lot of the American wood-warblers on their journey south. If we had been here a month earlier we would not have seen any (except one or two resident warbler species) and a month later would probably also have been much quieter.
The biggest downside to coming in October is that it is really the height of the rainy season. We were lucky in some ways and unlucky in others. In our first few days the thunderstorms came through at lunchtime when we were having downtime. From about day seven onwards it seemed to rain virtually every afternoon while we were birding and we even had two afternoon sessions that were a complete washout (the worst being stuck on the wrong side of a river near El Valle as it flooded down). It sounds like the dry season is possibly a little hotter but far less humid and a lot windier.
The heat was not always extreme but it was the humidity that got me at times. There were some walks where I was literally wet from top to bottom (and, yes, I know I sweat a lot but this was something else). Our one afternoon down at Gamboa town was unbelievably unpleasant from a humidity point of view.
With the rain and the heat and the humidity come the mosquitoes. We had our fair share of those. Yesterday in Nueva Vijia was something I have never seen before and the choice of wearing shorts wasn’t the best idea!
All in all, though, I think I coped well enough with the weather but Scott (one of our newly made Texan friends) and I decided our next trip will be to the Ecuadorian highlands as he is also not so much of a hot and sticky weather fan.
Trips like these are a bit of a lottery (or so I am told). Each of the locations we stayed at support around 15 guests and, although the occupancy wasn’t at capacity, we were still with at least four to eight other people for the duration of the trip. Aside from the particularly odd butterfly crowd at El Valle (Canopy Lodge) we were exceptionally lucky. We got to know Scott and Joan from Texas extremely well as their trip overlapped with ours almost identically (as well as Joan’s sister Cynthia before she returned back to Texas befor the Darien week). They say things in Texas are bigger and better and I can certainly vouch for the fact that these three satisfied the “better” criteria. They were wonderful birding companions and great dinnertime company. I am not sure if they will ever read this blog but I have to comment on Joan’s ability to handle the intense birding pace. She is 76 years old and she did not lag on a single excursion. There were times when my energy was flagging but she was always game for more birds. Some of the walks were slippery and challenging but she never complained. She was a champion. Scott was also a fellow photographer in the group and he and I would always try to get a better shot and share our pics in the evening. His were generally way better than mine. He was also a trooper as he slogged his tripod around wherever we went so he was carrying double what I was.
We also had Bruno and David from Calgary, Canada. Bruno was the Harpy Eagle “twitcher” and David was a great storyteller in the evenings having done some work in Rwanda in their clinics. They were both anesthesiologists and share a passion for birding (particularly Harpy Eagles).
We also had the three professors from California (Dick, Linda and Susan) who were with us at the Lodge and Tower. Dick wasn’t a birder so Susan and Linda would head out with the guides and, in the Birding God’s way of sneering at all of us, he (the Birding God) delivered a Harpy Eagle to the Canopy Tower while Dick was there and the rest of us were out in the field. Susan and Linda were compensated by the fact that they saw a Rufous-vented Ground-cuckoo on the same morning and we were more than compensated for missing that by having our own Harpy experience.
And then we had Susan, from Pennsylvania, join us for the Darien week and who was also great to have along.
So, all in all, we were very lucky. I hope they say the same thing about us.
Roads and transport
I think I have moaned more than enough about the roads and the transport so no more needs to be said.
I lied, one more time. The roads are terrible.
Oh, one more thing to add. They have these buses in Panama called Red Devils. They are essentially old American school buses which are used for public transport. Originally, they were decorated with outrageous patterns and colours on the outside and fitted with huge sound systems in order to attract more passengers. It seems as if there is no more need to attract passengers by being the biggest party bus but they still operate in large numbers on the Panamanian roads.
Simon and I said it up front – this was a birding trip and we would have very little time for cultural distractions. I think someone back home would have been very disappointed with me given my lack of cultural interest along the way (Goggs, you know I mean you), but we just did not have time for it.
The closest we came was the two Embera villages, Nueva Vijia and Sinai, where life seems to be very hard for the villagers in the difficult conditions. The second village had the added complication of the refugees living amongst them.
The Canopy Company has provided a source of revenue for the villagers, as we compensated the community for the access to their land for the Harpy Eagle and the women of the village have an opportunity to sell their woven goods to the birders as we passed through. I bought an item at each village but to think that they only really see tourists once a week as the Canopy Company comes through is depressing.
I did get the feeling that the people of Panama are friendly, but there is no doubt it is a very poor country, given what we saw in the rural areas. Littering is rife and much of the forest has been cleared for plantains and teak. The Darien is so inhospitable that it has a better chance of surviving the ongoing development.
Our meals were almost entirely restricted to those provided by the Canopy Company. I know that sounds negative, but it certainly isn’t meant to. The food was excellent the whole way through. Every meal had a fresh salad starter, a hearty main course and a very tasty dessert. Most of the meals were reasonably plain, with a healthy hint of Panamanian influence. The standout for me was the three cakes we got at each night at the Canopy Lodge. There was obviously a budding pastry chef at the Lodge as we were served birthday cake style desserts each of those nights.
And everyone knows how much I love my desserts.
What about the beer?
It seems as if the craft beer culture has not quite hit Panama yet as there are really only three possible beers available – Panama, Atlas and Balboa. And I can also confirm that none of them would have won any international beer challenge. I was quite desperate for a decent beer on the way to the Canopy Lodge that I picked up four American pale ales while Simon bought his bottle of cheap rum. I think one of my beers cost more than his bottle of rum and I can assure you it wasn’t because my beer was expensive.
So, once the beer has been spoken about there is not much more to add. I do hope that at least my family get this far when reading this but in case anyone else does, thanks for doing so. My good mate, Dave, joked with me and said he expects a 5,000 word a day contribution from me but I promised myself it would be no more than 500. I managed to settle somewhere around 1000 words a day so I was closer than him.
For the last time, Hasta Luego.