Panama's Darien Lowlands: Canopy Camp Oct 01—09, 2016

Posted by Barry Zimmer


Barry Zimmer

Barry Zimmer has been birding since the age of eight. His main areas of expertise lie in North and Central America, but his travels have taken him throughout much of the wo...

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As we approached the forests of the Aligandi region, we noticed activity in a tall tree to the right of the road. A female Blue Cotinga was quickly spotted perched up near the top of the tree. This species was one of our targets for the morning, and while we were hoping for a male, we were nonetheless excited to see the subtly beautiful female. Several Masked Tityras darted in and out of the same fruit-laden tree. Wanting to reach the forest trail as early as possible, we loaded up our open-air vehicle to move on. I took one more glance at the tree before we departed and now saw an electric-blue male Blue Cotinga on the right edge!  We scampered down and had wonderful scope views of this improbable day-glo bird in the morning sun.

Red-billed Scythebill

Red-billed Scythebill— Photo: Barry Zimmer


A short five-minute ride found us at our destination on Finca Don Cella. A lovely Bat Falcon greeted our arrival and was followed quickly by a stunning family group of Orange-crowned Orioles. A Sooty-headed Tyrannulet sang from the right and popped into view in short order, but our attention was drawn away almost immediately by a pair of Crimson-crested Woodpeckers sailing overhead and landing on the trunk of a nearby massive tree. The male posed in the scope obligingly, but was soon forgotten when a Gray-cheeked Nunlet was spotted at eye level just off the trail. This range-restricted member of the puffbird family is usually near the top of the wish list for birders visiting the Darien region of Panama, and we had one in full view just twenty feet away. Keel-billed Toucans and Blue-headed Parrots vied for our attention. A pair of diminutive Red-rumped Woodpeckers came in to check out the group. Which way to look first? A Black-bellied Wren cut loose with its liquid song, allowing brief views before an even better bird was heard—the highly sought and seldom seen Red-billed Scythebill singing quietly from low down in the forest not far off the trail. After some effort, we had several views of the bird in flight as it darted back and forth across the path, and one brief view of it perched through the vegetation.

Harpy Eagle

Harpy Eagle— Photo: Barry Zimmer


We could hardly believe our luck and the dizzying array of activity. We decided to have a quick drink and snack break to celebrate. I had just started eating when an adult Black Hawk-Eagle sailed right overhead nearly causing me to choke to death as I alerted the group to its presence. As we were enjoying this majestic bird along with two Great Black Hawks that were also soaring around, Carlos, my co-leader, said, “I think I just heard a Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle.” This much rarer relative of the Black Hawk-Eagle is seldom seen anywhere. In just seconds it appeared overhead, making two passes before disappearing off to the west. High fives were exchanged, and as we paused to catch our breath, yet another soaring bird of prey was spotted higher up, lazily riding a rising thermal. When I got the bird in my scope, I was absolutely stunned to see that it was an Ornate Hawk-Eagle! All three hawk-eagle species in one fifteen-minute stretch—certainly a feat that few birders anywhere have ever accomplished! At that moment, the Red-billed Scythebill reappeared, this time sitting in the open on a bare sapling and posing for lengthy scope views and great photographic opportunities. Incredible! This was without a doubt one of the best 45-minute stretches of birding I could ever remember…and it was only the second best 45 minutes of our tour!

The best 45 minutes of the tour belonged to the magical stretch watching a massive and spectacular Harpy Eagle at its nest along the Rio Membrillo. This iconic and near-mythical denizen of the Neotropics posed in full view on the edge of its nest for much of our visit, allowing us lengthy scope studies and photo ops. It was a lifer for everyone in our group, including me, and was voted the favorite bird of the tour!

Great Jacamar

Great Jacamar— Photo: Barry Zimmer


Of course our Canopy Camp tour was filled with many more memorable moments. Around the Camp itself, we enjoyed Red-throated Caracara, Rufous-crested Coquette, Yellow-throated Toucan, Black-tailed Trogon, a confiding family group of White-headed Wrens, Golden-collared and Golden-headed manakins, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, and adorable Geoffroy’s Tamarins. Two visits to the nearby El Salto Road yielded King Vulture, Pied Puffbird, Whooping Motmot, Golden-green Woodpecker, Black Antshrike, the highly-sought Double-banded Graytail, Choco Sirystes, White-eared Conebill, and more. Roadside marshes along the Pan-American Highway en route to Yaviza produced another set of high quality species including the likes of Blue-and-yellow Macaw, Spectacled Parrotlet, Striped Cuckoo, Spot-breasted Woodpecker, Black-capped Donacobius, Yellow-hooded Blackbird, Black Oropendola, and Large-billed Seed-Finch. Our boat trip along the Rio Membrillo and Rio Chucunaque netted not only the aforementioned Harpy, but also Green Ibis, Gray-headed Kite, White-necked Puffbird, an array of kingfishers, Spotted Antbird, and White-flanked Antwren. Finally, in the San Francisco Reserve area, we added White Hawk, Striped Owl, Great Jacamar, White-whiskered Puffbird, Speckled Mourner, and Spot-crowned Barbet among others.

In all we tallied 247 species for our week of birding in the Darien with some extra special memories that will never be forgotten. Additionally, we saw over 40 species of butterflies and ten species of mammals (including Three-toed Sloth, Western Night Monkey, White-throated Capuchin, and Neotropical River Otter). But wait, I forgot to mention the roosting Great Potoo, the flight of over 2,500 Broad-winged Hawks, the perched Pearl Kite at our Panama City hotel…there simply isn’t enough space to list all of the highlights of this absolutely amazing tour!