Monday, January 30, 2017

On The Edge of the Darién

Greetings Everyone,
The Darién Gap, a break in the Pan-American Highway consisting of large tracts of swamps and unbroken rainforest, had long intrigued me.  For centuries intrepid travelers have tried to bridge the gap but it remains an impenetrable barrier between Panama and Colombia.  Today tourists travel here to see the myriad of bird species and one in particular, the mighty Harpy Eagle.  The Canopy Family of Lodges had opened a camp in Darién Province providing a comfortable place to stay and knowledgeable guides to assist in exploring this region.  To learn more about the Canopy Family of Lodges, go to

Our journey began in Panama City where we spent 2 nights before venturing into the Darién.  Our guide, Moyo, picked us up on January 15 for the 5-hour drive to Canopy Camp.  We made several stops along the way to look for birds and other wildlife.  Our first stop was Chepu Road about an hour from Panama City where we encountered many birds including Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Thick-billed Seed Finch, Tropical Mockingbird, Barred Antshrike and this cute pair of Orange-chinned Parakeets.

Orange-chinned Parakeets

We next stopped near a bridge over Bayano Lake, Panama's second largest lake.  A Ringed Kingfisher dove in and came up with a tasty meal almost too big to swallow.

Ringed Kingfisher

We took a break for lunch in the town of Torti where hummingbirds frequenting the feeders entertained us.  

Sapphire-throated Hummingbird

We arrived at Canopy Camp in the afternoon and were distracted from our orientation by a playful troop of Geoffroy's Tamarins that visit the bird feeders daily.

Geoffroy's Tamarin

After settling in we set off to explore the trails right behind our tent.  We could hear the finger-snapping clicks from a number of male Golden-Collared Manakins.  This sound is not actually a call but a snapping of the wings as part of an elaborate courtship dance that the males use to attract females.  Marc was able to get a short video clip of this difficult and physically demanding display. The males have a bright yellow collar and the females have green feathers.

A Mantled Howler Monkey bellowed from the top of a tree.  Yes, we had arrived in paradise!  We had a week to explore the area and we set out early the next morning with Moyo to explore the road to the village of Lajas Blancas.  The road turned out to be "Woodpecker Alley".  Woodpeckers frequented the trees scattered in pastureland next to the road.  A Spot-breasted Woodpecker flew back and forth perching nearby.

Spot-Breasted Woodpecker

Not to be outdone by the Spot-breasted Woodpecker, a pair of Lineated Woodpeckers flew into a nearby tree and posed regally for Marc.

Lineated Woodpeckers

We crossed a bridge over the Chucunaque River and Moyo was surprised that the road continued on.  In fact it continued all the way to the village of Lajas Blancas, a large Emberá indigenous community with a population of 1000 residents.  A large government-funded project was underway, constructing new cement houses to replace wooden ones, a school and a hospital.  The road continued past the village and into the forest.  We'd have to return tomorrow to explore more of the road.

We were up before the sun the next morning and headed out into the forest past Lajas Blancas.  As dawn broke over the jungle the birds began to wake and we were able to spot them.  Highlights included Great and Dusky-backed Jacamars, Black-tailed Trogan and White-flanked Antwren.

Great Jacamar

We also noticed more and more vehicles traveling along this remote road.  Finally Moyo asked one of the motorists and he informed us that the village at the end of the road was hosting a festival and that people were traveling from near and far to party.  Oh well, we were still seeing plenty of birds just not the shy ones.  We stopped at a tall tree next to the road where Black Oropendola nests were hanging.  We had lunch while waiting for the birds to return and were rewarded when a beautiful female perched on one of the nests.   

Black Oropendola at a Nest

We returned to camp after a very rewarding day of birding.  We left around 6:30 the following morning to visit the nearby reserve of H. Filo del Tallo-Canglon.  Access was through a neighboring farm and we stopped to call the owner for directions to a road.  Apparently the "main" road to the reserve was impassable.  Moyo got directions and we turned down a rutted track on the right side of the house, passed through a couple of gates and ended up in a cow pasture.  This couldn't be right.  We returned to the house and called the owner again.  This time we found a steep track on the left side of the house and drove down into the cow pasture.  We followed a cow path until we got to the "road".  It was still rough going up the steep, rutted path to the reserve. We started our walk on a good trail and immediately saw Red-lored Parrots and a Black-tailed Trogan.  Suddenly, Moyo saw an animal on a tree next to the trail.  It was a Northern Tamandua!  It climbed up the tree and sat peering at us from the top. 

Northern Tamandua

It was great being in a protected area with no people, cars or dogs, just a beautiful forest with a meandering stream and the parrots squawking overhead.  There were also a lot of good birds such as a Royal Flycatcher, a pair of Spectacled Owls, Buff-rumped Warbler and White-whiskered Puffbird.  Near the stream a Black-crowned Antpitta flitted about the forest floor.  It perched long enough on a branch for Marc to get some good photos. 

Black-crowned Antpitta

Further down the stream we encountered an ant swarm.  The marching army ants had attracted a mixed flock of Spotted, Bicolored, Rufous-backed and Ocellated Antbirds.  They didn't come to feed on the ants but on other insects the ants stir up.

Spotted Antbird

Ocellated Antbird

Later that afternoon we headed out toward Yaviza, a frontier town at the end of the Pan-American Highway.  We stopped to take my photo next to a sign that said "Bienvenidos a Yaviza, kilometro 12,580, final desde Alaska". 

Peggy at Yaviza

Stretching from Alaska to the tip of Argentina, the 48,000 km-long Pan-American Highway is the world's longest motorable road.  But there is a gap between Yaviza, Panama and Turbo, Columbia, an expanse of wild tropical forest notorious for harboring drug smugglers and human traffickers that keeps travelers at bay.  

Pan-American Highway (Left)  Darién Gap (right)

It was quite the adventure for us to drive the 805-km section from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay, the northern terminus of the highway in the summer of 2015.  Now here we were at the edge of the infamous Darién Gap.  Tomorrow we would venture inside the Gap to search for the mighty Harpy Eagle!

We left Canopy Camp at 4:45 AM the next morning with a packed breakfast and lunch.  We drove for 45 minutes to Yaviza where we boarded a motorized canoe for the 45-minute trip downriver.  It was still dark so we couldn't see much.  I used our torch and spotted many Spectacled Caimans along the banks of the Chucunaque River.  We left the Chucunaque and entered the Tuquesa River.  As dawn approached we could make out some shore birds: Great Blue, Cocoi and Little Blue Herons, Spotted Sandpipers, White Ibis and Cattle Egret.  We arrived at the village of El Real at daybreak and climbed slippery, slanted steps up the riverbank to the village.

The Village of El Real

We had to wait around for a rickety pickup to drive us 45 minutes to the trailhead.  Marc sat in front with our driver and I sat in back with Moyo.  Pizarro, our local guide, and 3 porters climbed into the truck bed.  Our truck was making strange noises as we bounced along and it felt like we had a flat.  The driver went to check and said it was a little low so we continued on.  At the trailhead we had breakfast before setting off for the 6-km hike to Rancho Frio around 7:30.  The trail was more like a flat road and was easy walking.  Moyo seemed eager to get to the nest so we walked at a brisk pace not stopping to bird or read the information boards along the way.  We entered Darién National Park about 3 km in.

Entering Darién National Park
Finally we had reached the vast unbroken expanse of rainforest I was expecting in the Darién.  It didn't take long to reach Rancho Frio, a ranger station just inside the park.  We resumed our walk to a known Harpy Eagle nest.  We had to cross the Perresénico River on slippery stones and walk about 8 minutes to the site.  When we arrived just after 9:00 the nest was empty.  Bummer.  It was about 200 meters or 220 yards away and was about 50 meters or 160 feet high.  We sat on a vine to wait for the adults to show up.  As we were watching the nest Moyo and Marc noticed movement.  Could it be?  Yes, the chick was raising its white fuzzy head above the nest looking for its parents.  

Can You Spot the Harpy Eagle Chick?

Pizarro said the chick was about 25 days old.  I asked him how he knew and he said it was when they first noticed the parents bringing food back to the nest.  The chick kept us entertained while we waited for the adults to show up.  Typically chicks this young aren't kept alone for very long.  A Harpy pair raise only 1 chick every 2-3 years so this chick is crucial to the survival of the species.  Finally, after two and a half hours an adult showed up!  It swooped in and landed in the nest behind one on the thick main branches.  We could see its head with that magnificent crown but not much else.  It was a thrill nonetheless.  

Harpy Eagle

The Harpy Eagle is the largest and most powerful raptor found in the Americas and among the largest species of eagles in the world!  Moyo said the adult was a male but Pizarro said it was female.  The sexes look the same so it's hard to tell them apart.  The guys were content to see only the head of the adult but I wanted to see the entire bird.  After 2 and a half hours in the same position, the adult left the nest and perched in the open on a nearby branch.  Finally a full view!  

Harpy Eagle!

We could see its formidable talons.  The rear talons are around 3-4 inches long, as long as a grizzly bear's claws!  After 5 hours at the nest it was time to leave.  We walked out to the trailhead where our driver was waiting and drove to the nearby Emberá village of Pijibasal.  It was very clean and orderly.  They even had recycling bins and signs encouraging people not to drink and smoke.  Some of the local women brought baskets and animal masks for us to purchase.  


It was a long journey back to Canopy Camp so we said goodbye and set off for the return trip.  

We were up for a 6:30 AM breakfast and left shortly after for our second visit to H. Filo del Tallo-Canglon Reserve.   There didn't seem to be as many birds today but we spotted a few new ones such as White-fronted Nunbird, Checker-throated Antwren, Bright-rumped Attila and Speckled Mourner.

That night we went for a walk on the trails behind our tent.  Moyo spotted a lone bat roosting on a Cuipo tree, a tarantula in its burrow, a large whitish spider and a baby boa climbing a tree.

Baby Boa

Moyo spotted 2 Kinkajous high up in tree, too far to get any photos.  As we were nearing the camp we heard a Crested Owl calling.  Moyo often hears them but rarely sees them.  Tonight he spotted one perched nearby and Marc got some photos.

Crested Owl

On our last morning, we were up at 4:15 to pack for a 5:00 departure from Canopy Camp.  We drove in darkness toward Torti where we had breakfast.  After breakfast we drove for 20 minutes to St. Francis Natural Park, a 1300-acre private reserve owned and managed by the St. Francis Foundation.  We checked in with Father Wally Kasuboski (affectionately known as Padre Pablo), an American priest from Wisconsin who moved to Panama in 1988 and established the reserve in 2001.  Father Kasuboski has done much to help this impoverished area by building roads, schools and churches.  He also knows the importance of protecting the area's watershed for the benefit of humans and wildlife.  In fact the St. Francis Foundation built and maintains the largest private rural aqueduct in all of Central America!  To learn more about Father Kasuboski and his Foundation go to the following link.

We drove up the road and spotted a small troop of Geoffroy's Tamarins.  

Geoffroy's Tamarin

A Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth was hanging out in a cecropia tree. 

Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth

We parked the truck and heard a Whooping Motmot in the forest as we climbed on foot along the road.  This time we were able to spot it.  

Whooping Motmot

We headed back down the road and caught a Broad-billed Motmot close to the road.  

Broad-billed Motmot

We continued to our truck and heard a strange noise in the forest.  It sounded like an animal crunching on something.  We peered into the jungle with our binoculars but could not see the source of the noise.  Suddenly an animal jumped over a log and disappeared into the bushes!  We waited hoping the animal would return but it didn't.  Moyo went to see if he could find what the animal had been eating.  It was a large boa!  We went to check it out.  A headless boa lay coiled in front of a log.  Marc said "let's set up our camera trap and see if the animal returns for its meal".  Moyo and Marc strapped the camera to a large tree and we left the area around 10:20.  We continued birding and spotted a pair of Spectacled Parrolets in a thin dead tree.  Moyo had not seen them here before.  We returned to Torti to have lunch at our favorite restaurant where Moyo called Father Kasuboski to let him know we would be returning to retrieve our camera trap.  He was leaving for Panama City at 1:30 so we had to retrieve it by then.  We drove back to the site and Moya said the snake was gone!  Amazing.  We retrieved the camera and Marc said it had recorded 2 videos!  We hastily looked at them as we drove out.  Can you guess what the animal was?  Click on the following video to find out.

That's right, it was an ocelot!  We stopped to see Father Kasuboski and showed him the video.  He was thrilled!  He had never seen an ocelot in the Reserve.  

As we were heading for Panama City Moyo spotted the car of Raúl Arias de Para, the president and founder of the Canopy Family, heading toward Torti.  We pulled over and Moyo called Raúl to tell him about our encounter with the ocelot.  We arranged to meet him back at the restaurant in Torti and showed him the video of the ocelot and photos of the Harpy Eagle chick and adult.  He too was excited about our extraordinary wildlife encounters.  We said goodbye and headed toward Panama City on the Pan-American Highway after an amazing week in the Darién!  We want to thank our ever-helpful and so knowledgeable guide, Moyo, our accommodating host at Canopy Camp, Nick, Father Kasuboski for all his hard work to help the people and wildlife of Panama and to Raúl for making this trip possible.
We hope all is well with everyone,
Peggy and Marc

Our route map:

   Darién Mammal List

No. SpeciesScientific NameNotes
   1Varigated Squirrel Sciurus variegatoidesRiande & Chepu Road 
   2Jamaican Fruit BatArtebeus jamaicensusRiande
   3Geoffroy's TamarinSaguinus geoffroyChepu, Canopy Camp, St. Francis 
   4Forest RabbitSylvilagus brasiliensisCanopy Camp
   5Common OpossumDidelphis marsupialisCanopy Camp
   6Mantled HowlerAlouatta palliataCanopy Camp
   7Red-tailed SquirrelSciurus granatensisCanopy Camp, Darién NP, H. Filo del Tallo, St. Francis
   8Northern Tamandua Tamandua mexicanaH. Filo del Tallo
   9White-faced CapuchinCebus capucinusCanopy Camp
 10KinkajouPotos flavusCanopy Camp
 11Greater Spearnosed Bat
Phyllostomus hastatusCanopy Camp
 12OcelotLeopardus pardalisSt. Francis Natural Park
 13Brown-throated three-toed Sloth Bradypus variegatusCanopy Camp, H. Filo del Tallo, St. Francis

Darién Bird List:

1. Muscovy Duck
2. Gray-headed Chachalaca
3. Great Curassow
4. Pale-vented Pigeon
5. Plumbeous Pigeon
6. Plain-breasted Ground-Dove
7. Ruddy Ground Dove
8. Blue Ground Dove
9. White-tipped Dove
10. Gray-chested Dove
11. Squirrel Cuckoo
12. Yellow-billed Cuckoo
13. Striped Cuckoo
14. Greater Ani
15. Smooth-billed Ani
16. Common Pauraque
17. Band-rumped Swift
18. White-necked Jacobin
19. Rufous-breasted Hermit
20. Band-tailed Barbthroat
21. Pale-bellied Hermit
22. Purple-crowned Fairy
23. Black-throated Mango
24. Scaly-breasted Hummingbird
25. White-vented Plumeleteer
26. Blue-chested Hummingbird
27. Snow-bellied Hummingbird
28. Rufous-tailed Hummingbird
29. Sapphire-throated Hummingbird
30. Blue-throated Goldentail
31. Purple Gallinule
32. Southern Lapwing
33. Wattled Jacana
34. Spotted Sandpiper
35. Magnificent Frigatebird
36. Neotropic Cormorant
37. Anhinga
38. Rufescent Tiger Heron
39. Great Blue Heron
40. Cocoi Heron
41. Great Egret
42. Snowy Egret
43. Little Blue Heron
44. Cattle Egret
45. Green Heron
46. Striated Heron
47. Yellow-crowned Night Heron
48. White Ibis
49. Black Vulture
50. Turkey Vulture
51. Gray-headed Kite
52. Swallow-tailed Kite
53. Black-collared Hawk
54. Bicolored Hawk
55. Crane Hawk
56. Savanna Hawk
57. Roadside Hawk
58. White Hawk
59. Gray-lined Hawk
60. Harpy Eagle
61. Black Hawk-Eagle
62. Crested Owl
63. Spectacled Owl
64. Black-tailed Trogon 
65. White-tailed Trogon 
66. Whooping Motmot 
67. Broad-billed Motmot
68. Ringed Kingfisher
69. Barred Puffbird
70. White-necked Puffbird
71. Pied Puffbird
72. White-whiskered Puffbird
73. Gray-cheeked Nunlet
74. White-fronted Nunbird
75. Dusky-backed Jacamar
76. Rufous-tailed Jacamar
77. Great Jacamar
78. Collared Aracari 
79. Keel-billed Toucan
80. Yellow-throated Toucan
81. Olivaceous Piculet
82. Black-cheeked Woodpecker
83. Red-crowned Woodpecker
84. Red-rumped Woodpecker
85. Spot-breasted Woodpecker
86. Cinnamon Woodpecker
87. Lineated Woodpecker
88. Collared Forest Falcon
89. Red-throated Caracara 
90. Crested Caracara
91. Yellow-headed Caracara
92. AmericanKestrel
93. Bat Falcon
94. Chestnut-fronted Macaw
95. Spectacled Parrotlet 
96. Orange-chinned Parakeet
97. Blue-headed Parrot
98. Red-lored Parrot
99. Mealy Parrot
100. Barred Antshrike
101. Black Antshrike 
102. Black-crowned Antshrike 
103. Moustached Antwren 
104. White-flanked Antwren
105. Checker-throated Antwren
106. Rufous-winged Antwren
107. Bare-crowned Antbird
108. White-bellied Antbird
109. Chestnut-backed Antbird
110. Spotted Antbird
111. Bicolored Antbird
112. Oscellated Antbird
113. Black-crowned Antpitta
114. Plain Brown Woodcreeper
115. Wedge-billed Woodcreeper
116. Cocoa Woodcreeper 
117. Red-billed Scythebill
118. Streak-headed Woodcreeper 
119. Yellow-crowned Tyrannulet
120. Forest Elaenia 
121. Black- headed Tody-Flycatcher
122. Olivaceous Flatbill
123. Royal Flycatcher 
124. Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher 
125. Tropical Peewee
126. Acadian Flycatcher 
127. Pied Water Tyrant
128. Long-tailed Tyrant
129. Bright-rumped Attilia 
130. Choco Sirystes
131. Rufous Mourner
132. Great Crested Flycatcher 
133. Lesser Kiskadee
134. Great Kiskadee
135. Rusty-margined Flycatcher 
136. Social Flycatcher 
137. Streaked Flycatcher 
138. Tropical Kingbird
139. Fork-tailed Flycatcher 
140. Russet- winged Schiffornis
141. Speckled Mourner
142. Masked Tityra
143. Black-crowned Tityra
144. Cinnamon Becard
145. One-colored Becard
146. Purple-throated Fruitcrow
147. Golden-collared Manakin
148. Golden-headed Manakin
149. Lesser Greenlet
150. Yellow-green Vireo
151. Gray-breasted Martin
152. Mangrove Swallow
153. Southern Rough-winged Swallow
154. House Wren
155. White-headed Wren
156. Black-bellied Wren
157. White-breasted Wood Wren
158. Tropical Gnatcatcher 
159. Clay-colored Thrush
160. Tropical Mockingbird
161. Yellow-crowned Euphonia
162. Thick-billed Euphonia
163. Louisiana Waterthrush
164. Northern Waterthrush 
165. Golden-winged Warbler
166. Prothonotary Warbler
167. Tennessee Warbler
168. Bay-breasted Warbler
169. Yellow Warbler
170. Buff-rumped Warbler
171. Blue-gray Tanager
172. Palm Tanager
173. Golden-hooded Tanager
174. Plain-colored Tanager
175. White-eared Conebill
176. Blue-black Grassquit
177. White-shouldered Tanager
178. Crimson-backed Tanager
179. Red-legged Honeycreeper
180. Blue Dacnis
181. Bananaquit
182. Thick-billed Seed Finch
183. Variable Seedeater
184. Orange-billed Sparrow
185. Rose-breasted Grosbeak
186. Blue-black Grosbeak
187. Red-breasted Blackbird
188. Eastern Meadowlark
189. Great-tailed Grackle
190. Yellow-backed Oriole
191. Orange-crowned Oriole
192. Baltimore Oriole 
193. Yellow-rumped Cacique
194. Crested Oropendola 
195. Chestnut-headed Oropendola 
196. Black Oropendola 
197. Blue Cotinga