Panama's Darien Lowlands: Canopy Camp Jan 17—25, 2015

Posted by Kevin Zimmer


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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It was with great anticipation that I returned to Panama for my second Canopy Camp, Darién tour.  I had led VENT’s inaugural tour to the camp in 2014 (which also represented the first group of birders to “open” the camp), and it had been a most exciting and enjoyable launch for the newest in the renowned Canopy Family of eco-lodges.  The 2014 tour had been highlighted by our group’s discovery and documentation of a male Ruby Topaz Hummingbird (the first adult male recorded for Panama, and only the 3rd or 4th record of the species for the country), and of the first Canopy Camp record of Sooty-headed Tyrannulet (we found two resident pairs), a species of wider South American distribution, whose Central American range is limited to the Darién.  Whenever a new lodge opens, there is a window of discovery for finding birds not previously known to be present.  This is the expected consequence of cutting new trails, exploring new sites, and having experienced local guides out birding the area on a daily basis.  So it was when we “opened” the Canopy Camp in 2014, and my expectation at that time was that 2015 would bring new surprises. 

Golden-collared Manakin

Golden-collared Manakin— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

This expectation was met before our 2015 trip had even begun!  I arrived in Panama City a day before the tour was to begin, and received a phone call late that night from senior Canopy Tower guide Carlos Bethancourt that gave me a jolt.  Carlos had just come from the Darién, where he had been guiding a film crew in search of some very special birds.  They were on their way back to Panama City when Carlos got a phone call with the exciting news that Canopy Camp guide Nando Quiroz had just located a pair of Dusky-backed Jacamars along the Rio Tuquesa.  Dusky-backed Jacamar is a small jacamar with a tiny global range, restricted to the lowlands of Darién and western Colombia.  Even within this limited range, it seems to be patchily distributed and uncommon.  It was a species that resident and visiting guides alike had been searching for in the area, without success, since well before the Camp opened in 2014.  It also represented a potential lifer for Carlos.  I’m not sure what lengths Carlos had to go through to talk the film crew into a sudden change of plans, but in short order, he had made a U-turn on the Pan-American highway, and began racing back (2 hours!) to Darién.  A boat was waiting for them, and before the day was out, Carlos and the film crew had scored the pair of jacamars.  More exciting for me was the news from Carlos that local villagers had reported seeing the jacamars entering and exiting a hole in a nearby dirt bank along the river, meaning that they were almost certainly nesting, and therefore, likely to stay put.
Day 1 saw us driving to Darién, with planned birding in the Bayano Valley region of eastern Panama Province en route.  Bird activity was slower than usual, with relatively little vocalization, but that didn’t stop us from netting several good birds.  Our first stop, at a quiet cove of Bayano Reservoir, turned up an adult Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, a juvenile Cocoi Heron, and a dapper little Pied Water-Tyrant, as well as a Central American Pygmy-Owl that teased us by calling sporadically for an extended time without showing itself.  We then drove several kilometers east to the Rio Mono, where we enjoyed great views of snazzy pairs of Cinnamon Woodpeckers and Black-tailed Trogons, a lively group of White-eared Conebills, a mixed-species flock with Red-rumped Woodpecker and Streaked Xenops (a surprise to me in this lowland region), and a Bright-rumped Attila that we could actually look down on!  Nearby trails yielded the regional endemic Black Antshrike and a few other odds and ends before we called it quits and headed to Tortí for lunch.  Our lunch stop served up generous portions of good food and an impressive diversity of hummingbirds at the feeders, including, among the latter, Long-billed Starthroat, Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, Snowy-bellied Hummingbird, Black-throated Mango, and Sapphire-throated Hummingbird.  A couple of hours later, we rolled into the Canopy Camp, our home for the remainder of the week.

Blue-throated Goldentail

Blue-throated Goldentail— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Our next day was spent becoming familiar with the camp itself, with the morning divided between the camp clearing and the forest trail system, and the late afternoon spent along the entrance road.  As was the case last year, the birding around the camp clearing was so good that it was difficult to tear ourselves away to hike the forest trail.  Highlights from the clearing were many, including a pair of Barred Puffbirds, a lovely Orange-crowned Oriole, a responsive pair of Double-banded Graytails, an adult King Vulture soaring overhead, a Brown-capped Tyrannulet that taped down to eye level, and an animated pair of Sooty-headed Tyrannulets, no doubt representing one of the same pairs that we first discovered in 2014.  Nando’s Trail added more special birds, topped by Gray-cheeked Nunlet and active leks of both Golden-headed and Golden-collared manakins, as well as some non-avian highlights in the form of a troop of Mantled Howler Monkeys (with babies), a Striped Parrot Snake, a Red-headed Gecko, and a rather fierce-looking, but decidedly docile tarantula.  Our afternoon walk along the entrance road was particularly notable for revealing a nesting pair of Rufous-tailed Jacamars and a pair of Double-banded Graytails (probably the same ones seen earlier in the clearing) that were carrying nesting material.  As was the case in 2014, hummers of several species were swarming around the flowering vervain.  Sadly, there was no sign of last year’s male Ruby Topaz, but then, we didn’t expect to see it, since the local guides had not seen it in over six months (however, in the week after we left the camp, not one, but two different male Ruby Topaz Hummingbirds were found in the same patch of vervain).  There were several stunning male Violet-bellied Hummingbirds, and singing Blue-throated Goldentails to be enjoyed.

Double-banded Graytail

Double-banded Graytail— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

We were originally scheduled to spend Day 3 on the El Salto Road, but I scrapped that schedule the night that Carlos called me about the Dusky-backed Jacamars!  Even though we thought they were nesting, I didn’t want to risk a downturn in the weather or an incident of nest-predation, or any other unforeseen catastrophe blowing our shot at seeing these special birds.  “Strike while the iron is hot” pretty much summed up my game plan.  The jacamar site was along the Rio Tuquesa, on our way, as it turned out, to an Emberá community called Nuevo Vigia, that we were already planning to visit.  The boat trip up the Rio Chucunaque to the Tuquesa was pleasant enough, with Mangrove Swallows, Greater Anis, our only Whooping Motmot of the trip, lots of basking Brown Basilisk lizards, and the occasional raptor to keep us entertained.  Best of all was coming across a Neotropical River Otter that was more intent on doing something (scent marking?) on the exposed riverbank than it was on us.  We were able to watch for an uncommonly long time before the animal finally tired of having an audience.  Eventually, we made it to the designated spot, where we beached the two boats on a sandbar and disembarked.  Our boatman pointed to the treetops on the opposite shore, and with one glance, the drama was gone—I could see a small jacamar silhouetted against the gray sky.  In no time, we had disembarked and set up the scope, only to find that the jacamar had slipped away during the process.  This proved only a temporary nuisance, because before long, the jacamar was back, and, with its presumed mate in tow.  For the next half-hour or more, we enjoyed watching these rare birds (a lifer for me and for Moyo, as well as for everyone in the group) as they sallied out again and again for flying insects, almost always returning to the same perch, and in between sallies, alertly snapping their heads from side-to-side to track potential prey.  At one point, they were even joined on their bare branches by a pair of Red-rumped Woodpeckers.  

Dusky-backed Jacamars

Dusky-backed Jacamars— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

After finally leaving the jacamars, we continued the short distance to Nuevo Vigia, where we birded on foot for the remainder of the morning.  Our primary target here was the Spectacled Parrotlet, another Darién specialty with a range not much larger than that of the jacamar.  After hearing a few groups of parrotlets and seeing another group only in distant flight, we finally caught up with some perched birds.  The parrotlets are so tiny, and their green plumage matches the foliage so well, that even when we had them in the scope, it took some time before everyone could see them.  Other birds here were more cooperative, among them, a pair of Olivaceous Piculets that descended to eye level, and multiple Striped Cuckoos, each of which showed nicely for us.   After a picnic lunch and an opportunity to examine and purchase some of the native crafts, we returned to the river and began making our way back to Puerto Peñita, with a stop along the way at a trail and marsh called “Tortuga.”  The forest here was fairly quiet, but we did find a pair of Bare-crowned Antbirds and a Pacific Antwren, all of which played hard-to-get.  A Golden-green Woodpecker sounded off from somewhere in the distance, and after a spot of playback, it came roaring in to defend its turf, allowing repeated superb studies that made it at once a crowd favorite.  The marsh added a few other tidbits, including a Green Ibis and a pair of White-throated Crakes.  Post-dinner nightbirding around the camp clearing proved to be a bust—although a Mottled Owl and a pair of Crested Owls called repeatedly from the nearby forest, none of them cared enough to come in.  This called for Plan B.  So, we headed out of camp on a night drive in the specially outfitted, open-air truck.  We had barely turned off the highway when I spotlighted a Common Potoo sitting on a snag upslope.  After that came an Olingo and a perched Mottled Owl that Moyo somehow spotted through a tiny gap in vegetation, and then, even more amazingly, managed to get in the scope.

Olivaceous Piculet

Olivaceous Piculet— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Day 4 found us on the El Salto Road, but we had barely gotten started before the sodden skies opened up and began to rain.  We spent more of the morning in the van than out, thankful that this weather hadn’t struck the previous day when we were in the uncovered boats and trying to find the jacamars!  In between rain showers, we managed to find some good birds, including a rather soggy and bedraggled group of three Red-throated Caracaras and an equally drenched trio of Pied Puffbirds.  A recently cut trail down by the river showed promise, although by the time the rain had stopped long enough for us to venture far, it was already time to head back to camp for lunch.  We were there just long enough to get good looks at a male Bare-crowned Antbird and a pair of Black Antshrikes, and to be teased by a brief encounter with a spectacular Red-billed Scythebill, all enticing enough to merit a return on another day.  In the afternoon, we headed back out on the Pan-American Highway, navigating countless potholes as we headed east toward Yaviza, where the highway ends, signaling the beginning of the infamous Darién Gap. En route, we stopped for a lovely pair of Spot-breasted Woodpeckers and for a Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth.  Our destination was not Yaviza, but an unnamed stretch of road just to the west of there where Black Oropendolas can be reliably found.  We arrived just in time for the late afternoon commute as small groups of oropendolas began returning from daytime foraging grounds to their colony or evening roost sites.  Most of the oropendolas we saw here were Blacks (one of our key target species), but there were just enough Chestnut-headed and Crested oropendolas here to keep us on our toes.  Black Oropendola is yet another species whose entire global range is restricted to extreme eastern Panama and western Colombia, and it is a spectacular looking bird as well.  By the time we called it quits, we had seen 60 or more of these special birds, most of them only in flight, but with scope views of a few perched individuals as well.

Spot-breasted Woodpecker

Spot-breasted Woodpecker— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

The following day found us driving west to Metetí and then south to a site known locally as “Las Lagunas.”  This mosaic of pastureland, gallery forest, and seasonal marsh proved extremely birdy, netting us such prizes as Gray-necked Wood-Rail, Rufescent Tiger-Heron, Bat Falcon, Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, White-necked Puffbird, a distant Blue-and-yellow Macaw (nicely spotted by Charlie), and Black-capped Donacobius, a species that is widespread in South America, but which reaches the northwestern limit of its range here in the Darién.  We also had a close encounter with a troop of Geoffroy’s Tamarins, endearing little primates with distinctly goblin-like countenances.  As we were headed back to camp in the late afternoon, we made one more stop for a Laughing Falcon, the panda bear of the bird world, teed-up nicely in a bare emergent close to the road.

After dinner, we made our second night drive, this time to a road that I thought had particularly good owling potential.  Our efforts paid off in a big way when we ended up spotlighting Striped Owl, Tropical Screech-Owl, and a most handsome Black-and-white Owl, all simply spotted without benefit of playback.  We also added Common Opossum and another Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth to our mammal list.

Striped Owl

Striped Owl— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

Our final day in Darién found us back on the El Salto Road in the morning, this time without the threat of rain.  An impressive pair of Crimson-crested Woodpeckers showed nicely at the beginning of the road, but most of our effort was directed toward birding the newly cut trail that paralleled the Rio Chucunaque at the end of the road.  We had great luck with seeing such skulkers as Bare-crowned Antbird, White-bellied Antbird, and Black Antshrike, and once I managed to tape record the song of the Red-billed Scythebill, it too proved responsive and easy to see.  Such was not the case with the Gray-cheeked Nunlet, which teased us with sporadic bouts of song, only to fall silent for extended periods.  Occasionally, one of us would spot the little beast, only to have it fly before we could get it in the scope.  A mixed-species flock late in the morning treated us to three species of becards, multiple woodcreepers and antwrens, and some lovely Yellow-backed Orioles among others.  The afternoon excursion to nearby Tierra Nueva was perhaps most notable for the pair of Tayras (big, Neotropical weasels) that ambled across the trail just ahead of us.

Black Oropendola

Black Oropendola— Photo: Kevin Zimmer

The next day saw us departing camp, bags in tow, immediately after breakfast. An hour or so out of camp, we stopped for a Pearl Kite along the highway, only to discover a pair of birds actively building a nest.  We watched the pair make multiple trips to the nest, always bringing slender twigs as material.  Arriving in Tortí, we made a quick restroom stop and pre-ordered lunch at the restaurant, prior to heading to the nearby San Francisco Reserve for a few hours of birding.  The reserve produced nice looks at Barred and Pied puffbirds, Plain-breasted Ground-Dove, and a soaring pair of Double-toothed Kites among other things.  We made a final couple of birding stops in the Bayano region in the afternoon, this time picking up the Rufous-winged Antwrens that had been strangely silent at the beginning of the week.  With fine views of the antwrens secured, we headed on into Tocumen, putting the wraps on what had been another wonderful trip to Panama’s easternmost province.

Special thanks to my co-leader, Moyo Rodríguez, for all of his hard work and good humor in helping us find the many special birds of the region.  Thanks also to Nando for finding those wonderful jacamars, and to all of the fine staff at the Canopy Camp for taking such good care of us, and for providing such a lovely base of operations from which to bird lowland Darién.  Thanks also to each of you for being such pleasant birding companions, and for letting us introduce you to the avian riches of Darién.