Panama's Darien Lowlands: Canopy Camp Jan 14—22, 2017

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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The undisputed highlight of this year’s tour was our successful mini-expedition into Darién National Park, in quest of seeing a Harpy Eagle at an active nest.  What had seemed like a slam-dunk, just days before our trip, turned out to be anything but when I received the sad news that the Harpy nest that we planned to visit had just been depredated.  Fortunately, the folks at the Canopy Camp had a “Plan B” (and “C”), and when the first option was snatched away, they swung into action, implementing a logistically challenging, but flawlessly executed plan to get us to another active Harpy nest.  It involved a 4:00 a.m. breakfast, a 45-minute drive, a predawn boat trip along two rivers, a 40-minute drive employing a caravan of 4X4 pickups, and a sweaty, 4-mile (one-way) hike and an assisted stream-crossing over a makeshift rock bridge, but we made it, even arriving ahead of schedule.  And boy, was it worth it!  We spent over an hour watching an adult female Harpy Eagle sitting in its nest, situated majestically in the crotch of a towering Cuipo tree, some 50 m above the ground.  The Harpy was alert throughout, the feathers of her expressive, bifurcate crest erect one second and lax the next, a dynamic that was impossible for those of us with cameras to resist.  And how cool was it to have two screeching Great Green Macaws fly right past the nest tree, allowing a lucky few to claim macaws and Harpy in the same binocular field?  And just when we finally tore ourselves away to continue up the trail a short distance, the Harpy went for the encore, scrambling up out of the nest onto one of the main supporting branches of the Cuipo to stretch and look around, and in the process, treating us to the full Monty!  All thoughts of continuing up the trail were quickly abandoned, as we hurried back to our previous observation point, this time to revel in views of the entire bird.  The next half-hour flew past, as the great raptor preened and posed, showing off its massive talons and impressively thick legs.  Then, with wings partially raised for balance, the Harpy tiptoed its way back into the nest and hunkered down, which was our cue to begin the hike back to Rancho Frio and our awaiting picnic lunch.  En route, we managed to tape in a pair of Scarlet-browed Tanagers (and then enjoyed even better views of another pair back at Rancho Frio), a species of restricted range, whose distribution outside of Colombia and nw Ecuador is limited to a tiny slice of the Darién.

Harpy Eagle, adult on nest

Harpy Eagle, adult on nest— Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer


The length of the hike in to Rancho Frio, combined with the desire to get to the Harpy nest as early as possible, meant that there was little window for birding stops en route (although we couldn’t help but stop for a perched Semiplumbeous Hawk and some noisy Purple-throated Fruitcrows).  We were less time-constrained on the return hike, which enabled us to pick off a few avian gems, among them, Gray-cheeked Nunlet, White-whiskered Puffbird, Great Jacamar, the very different (from Canal Zone birds) cassini subspecies of Chestnut-backed Antbird, and Stripe-throated Wren.  The return boat ride (this time, fully in the light) also treated us to both Common and Great black-hawks, and bunches of Cocoi Herons, among others.

The excursion into Darién National Park was merely the centerpiece of our week-long immersion into the avifauna of lowland Darién, and, as always, the Canopy Camp provided the perfect base of operations.  With an active colony of Chestnut-headed Oropendolas situated right off the dining area deck, feeders and planted vervain buzzing with hummers of several species (including Violet-bellied, Sapphire-throated, Pale-bellied Hermit, Black-throated Mango, and Long-billed Starthroat), White-headed Wrens ducking in and out of view between the tents, a noisy troop of Geoffroy’s Tamarins making daily passes through the clearing, and leks of exquisite Golden-collared and Golden-headed manakins along the camp’s trail system, it was difficult to tear ourselves away to go anywhere else!

Blue-throated Goldentail

Blue-throated Goldentail— Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer


Nevertheless, we persisted, and, in the process, enjoyed good success in tracking down most of the special target birds.  The so-called “Darién specialties” actually fall into one of three categories:  1)  Birds with extremely restricted global ranges that are found nowhere outside of the Darién and adjacent w Colombia (most of these are found in the foothills and highlands of e Darién, to which access is currently difficult, but there are some lowland birds, such as Black Antshrike and Black Oropendola, which fit in this category); 2)  Lowland and foothill birds with somewhat more extensive (but still restricted) ranges into w & n Colombia, and nw Ecuador or nw Venezuela, which reach the northwestern limits of their distribution in e Panama (many of these being endemic to the “Chocó region of endemism”); and 3)  Species with expansive ranges in lowland South America that are at the western limits of their distribution in e Panama (many of these seem to be expanding their ranges with increased deforestation), and which, are “specialties” only when viewed from a Central American or Panamanian perspective.  During our week in the Darién lowlands, we succeeded in finding “specialties” from all three categories.

Golden-collared Manakin

Golden-collared Manakin— Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer


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 a juvenile Cocoi Heron and a dapper pair of Pied Water-Tyrants.  We then drove several kilometers east to the Rio Mono, where we enjoyed great views of a snazzy Cinnamon Woodpecker, a pair of Cinnamon Becards, a lively group of White-eared Conebills, and a mixed-species flock with Red-rumped Woodpecker and Streaked Xenops.  An hour spent along the Rio Tortí yielded, most notably, a pair of Pacific Antwrens, some responsive Golden-fronted Greenlets, and Yellow-olive Flycatcher, the latter representing the first in what would turn out to be a Tolmomyias hat trick for the trip.  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, with time for an hour of late afternoon birding in the camp clearing and at the top of the driveway.  In addition to producing responsive pairs of Cinnamon Woodpeckers and White-tailed Trogons, and excellent studies of a Yellow-breasted Flycatcher (a recent colonist of the Darién from South America, first recorded in Panama in 2007), this hour was memorable for a lovely male Blue-throated Goldentail that had crashed into something on the deck, and lay stunned until I picked it up, examined it, and then placed it on a hanging plant, where it sat for several minutes before flying off.

Double-toothed Kite

Double-toothed Kite— Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer


The next morning was devoted to a more thorough exploration of the camp clearing and the ambient trails into the forest.  Highlights were many, including some close-up looks at several canopy flycatchers, among them, Yellow-margined Flycatcher, Brown-capped Tyrannulet, and Black-headed Tody-Flycatcher.  Our first pair of Double-banded Graytails, found along Nando’s Trail, was not nearly as obliging, and although they responded repeatedly to playback, they remained neck-breakingly high in the emergent trees.  A responsive pair of Golden-crowned Spadebills was a nice pick-up, but the morning belonged to the stunning Golden-collared and Golden-headed manakins on their leks, a spectacle that many in the group returned to during subsequent afternoon breaks.  That afternoon, we traveled east to near Yaviza, at the terminus of the Pan American Highway.  Our primary quarry was the Black Oropendola, a true specialty of lowland Darién whose range extends only to adjacent Colombia.  We found more than 30 of these striking birds, intercepting them on their afternoon commutes between foraging sites and their nesting colony.  Most were seen only in flight, but we did manage scope views of a few that perched briefly.  In the process, we found several other good birds, including Spot-breasted and Golden-green woodpeckers, Spot-crowned Barbet, White-necked Puffbird, Black-chested Jay, and Orange-crowned Oriole.

Spot-breasted Woodpecker

Spot-breasted Woodpecker— Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer


Mornings on the El Salto Road sandwiched our full-day Harpy Eagle excursion and produced all kinds of special birds and experiences.  Among the highlights:  male and female Blue Cotingas; the first of what would prove to be an eventual tally of 8 Gray-cheeked Nunlets; a pair of Double-banded Graytails attending their outsized stick nest; a pair of Chocó Sirystes with their accompanying mixed-species flock; skulking Bare-crowned and White-bellied antbirds; a male Olivaceous Piculet that descended to near eye level; nesting Long-tailed Tyrants; a plethora of puffbirds and trogons; a pugnacious pair of Sooty-headed Tyrannulets; more White-eared Conebills and Orange-crowned Orioles; a pair of Laughing Falcons; and a most confiding Double-toothed Kite.  Morning and afternoon excursions to other nearby sites over the next few days filled in many holes on our checklists, with day-roosting Great Potoo, low-soaring King Vultures and Black Hawk-Eagles, near-endemic Black Antshrikes, a very rare (for Panama and Central America) Bicolored Wren, and a nesting pair of Spectacled Parrotlets among the prizes.  Mammals got in on the action too, with some particularly nice studies of Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth, Hoffmann’s Two-toed Sloth, Mantled Howler Monkey, and Geoffroy’s Tamarin (a striking little primate with a decidedly goblin-like countenance) scattered through the week.

Geoffroy's Tamarin

Geoffroy’s Tamarin— Photo: Kevin J. Zimmer


On our last evening at the camp, we enjoyed a most productive night drive that treated us to Kinkajous, the aforementioned Hoffmann’s Two-toed Sloth, a Common Potoo perched on a fence post, and topped off with a spectacular Black-and-white Owl.  The next day was devoted to the drive back to Panama City/Tocumen, but we did manage a few hours of productive birding at the San Francisco Reserve near Tortí, highlighted by a copulating pair of spectacular White Hawks, yet another low-soaring adult King Vulture, and by great studies of the Yellow-green Tyrannulet, a generally unremarkable little flycatcher that is nonetheless noteworthy for being among a handful of species of birds that are endemic to Panama.

All too soon, we were back in Tocumen, our Darién adventure over.  I especially want to thank Nick and the entire Canopy Camp staff for taking such good care of us, and for orchestrating and navigating the complex logistics of (in particular) the Harpy Eagle excursion so flawlessly.  Domi did an outstanding job as our local guide, and, as always, I really enjoyed working with him.  The camp itself is a joy, not only for the many amenities and wonderful meals, but for the atmosphere and the abundance of nature that surrounds it.  You all were a very fun group, and I greatly enjoyed getting to know you, and being able to share the natural wonders of the Darién with you.  I very much hope that our paths cross on some future trip, in another fascinating corner of the world.e future trip, in another fascinating corner of the world.