Panama's Darien Lowlands: Canopy Camp Jan 18—26, 2014

Posted by Kevin Zimmer

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Kevin Zimmer

Kevin Zimmer has authored three books and numerous papers dealing with field identification and bird-finding in North America. His book, Birding in the American West: A Han...

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Panama’s Canopy Camp Darien lived up to our lofty expectations, on both the birding front and as yet another jewel in the Canopy Family crown of great natural history destinations in Panama. It was our privilege to be the inaugural group of birders to open the camp, and with that spirit of adventure there is always an underlying element of uncertainty and experimentation that comes with doing a tour or visiting a destination that hasn’t been done before. The camp itself was a delight–it was amazing for me to see the transformation since I had done my site inspection just two years ago (when the “camp” consisted of nothing more than a clearing, a partially completed entrance road, and a grand vision in the mind of Raúl Arias de Para). There was great birding to be had right around the main clearing and along the entrance road, not to mention in the adjacent forest, and our African-style tents (each set on a private deck with its own private bathroom) were not only comfortable, but were simply elegant. The meals were tasty and thoughtfully prepared, and the entire staff worked tirelessly to attend to our needs.

Black Oropendola, Yaviza, Darien, Panama

Black Oropendola, Yaviza, Darien, Panama— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

So what about those birds? Well, we got nearly all of the eastern Panamanian lowland specialties that could reasonably be hoped for, plus a couple of surprises and a representative cross section of birds typical of the Canal Zone. Included among the “specialty birds” were things like Black Antshrike, Spectacled Parrotlet, and Black Oropendola, each with tiny global ranges confined to eastern Panama and western Colombia (and, in the case of the parrotlet, a disjunctly distributed population in far western Venezuela). Then there were the birds of somewhat wider distribution, such as Pale-bellied Hermit, Barred Puffbird, Gray-cheeked Nunlet, Double-banded Graytail, White-eared Conebill, One-colored Becard, White-headed Wren, and Orange-crowned Oriole, all of which are as easily found in the Darien as anywhere, and which definitely rank high among the target birds for any birder visiting lowland Darien. There were also a number of species that have extensive ranges in South America, but which reach the western/northern limit of their ranges in Darien, and which are therefore difficult to see in Central America. Examples from that category include Black-collared Hawk; Red-rumped, Golden-green, and Spot-breasted woodpeckers; Golden-headed Manakin (we were treated to displaying males along the forest trail a few hundred meters from the camp clearing); and Yellow-breasted Flycatcher (a recent colonist first found in Panama in 1992).

Double-banded Graytail, Tierra Nueva, Darien, Panama 1/24/14

Double-banded Graytail, Tierra Nueva, Darien, Panama 1/24/14— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

I was particularly pleased to discover a couple of pairs of Sooty-headed Tyrannulets in residence around the camp. This drab, canopy-dwelling little flycatcher reaches the western/northern limit of its range in the Darien, but had not been previously found anywhere in the vicinity by the local guides. It is easily overlooked unless one knows its distinctive voice. Fortunately, I knew the voice from Brazil and Venezuela, and we were able to record them and lure them down for nearly eye level viewing. The species was a lifer for Moyo, Domi, and Nando, which made it even more special! The even bigger surprise came in the form of a dazzling male Ruby Topaz Hummingbird found by Elliot and Christine when they stayed behind at the camp on the afternoon of the 21st. The bird was one of a multitude of hummers of several species coming to the flowering vervain along the entrance road. A midafternoon search the next day failed to relocate the bird, but we tried again late on our last afternoon at the camp and struck pay dirt, managing to obtain great looks for everyone at what is arguably one of the most striking members of the hummingbird family! This represented one of only a few documented records of this South American species for Panama, and, indeed, for anywhere in Central America.

Golden-collared Manakin, Canopy Camp, Darien, Panama, January 2014

Golden-collared Manakin, Canopy Camp, Darien, Panama, January 2014— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

On top of all the specialty birds and surprises, we enjoyed numerous special moments with more widespread Panamanian birds and animals. There was the Rufous-breasted Hermit building its nest beneath a hanging palm frond along the El Salto Road; the Mottled Owl that presented itself so nicely on our first night of owling; the spectacular male Bare-crowned Antbird along the river trail at El Salto; the Black-faced Antthrush that eventually came in and hopped up on a low branch to sing, while we enjoyed scope-filling views; the antics and snap-crackle-pop sound effects of displaying male Golden-collared Manakins along Nando’s Trail; the Long-billed Starthroat sitting on its nest atop the wire over the entrance road; waking up to the rhythmic croaking of Keel-billed Toucans and watching afternoon flights of Red-lored Parrots returning to their roosts, all from our decks; watching hummers of several species (including snazzy Violet-bellieds and Blue-throated Goldentails) wage turf battles over patches of flowering vervain along the entrance road; and having troops of primates (White-throated Capuchins and Geoffroy’s Tamarins) come right through camp. Sandwiched in between were loads of butterflies, poison dart frogs, cane toads, basilisk lizards, a few too many tediously bumpy rides on the pothole-riddled terminal portion of the Pan-American Highway, a not-quite-ready-for-primetime excursion to El Real, and lots of laughs.

All in all, it was a great first tour to a special spot that is certain to become another “must visit” destination for birders. Sure, the logistics of a few of the excursions need some tweaking (yes, El Real, we’re talking about you), but that is almost always the case the first time something is tried with a group. Thanks to all of you for being part of the adventure and magic of being the first birding group to open the Canopy Camp Darien, and special thanks to Moyo, Domi, Carlos, Nando, Jenn, and the rest of the Canopy Family staff who helped make our trip so successful.