Broad-billed Motmot Photo: Gavin Bieber
Darién Province in far eastern Panama is one of the wildest and most remote corners of the isthmus. Largely roadless and with steep mountains cloaked in dense vegetation, the region holds its secrets well. With the development of the new Canopy Camp Darién, visiting naturalists finally have an accessible lodge from which to base their explorations. Although the lodge sits among secondary forest and clearings, we’ll be able to access more extensive lowland forests in the large Embera Reserve. We’ll stay in comfortable safari-style permanent tents on raised platforms, each with en suite bathroom facilities and electricity. We’ll spend our week here walking along the forest trails and road systems near the very eastern end of the Pan-American Highway. The clearing around the camp is surrounded by excellent forest and dense thickets of Heliconia plants, along with their attendant Pale-bellied and Rufous-breasted Hermits. In the early morning we’ll see an array of parrots and toucans perching in the surrounding trees and enjoy a chorus of raucous birdsong. We’ll concentrate especially on locating many of the true specialities of far eastern Panama: Spectacled Parrotlet, Gray-cheeked Nunlet, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Golden-green, Spot-breasted, and Red-rumped Woodpeckers, the enigmatic Sapayoa, Double-banded Graytail, Black Antshrike, Barred Puffbird, One-colored Becard, Golden-headed Manakin, White-eared Conebill, Orange-crowned Oriole, and Black Oropendola. If there is a known active nest site, as has often been the case in recent years, we will also venture out in a quest to find Panama’s national bird; the awe-inspiring Harpy Eagle. Because the area is only just beginning to open up to ecotourists, new discoveries are being made every month. Even for seasoned regional travelers, the Darién lowlands hold a wealth of new birds.
Day 1: The tour begins at 7.30pm with an introductory meeting in the lobby of our Panama City hotel. Night in Panama City.
Day 2: We’ll begin with an early departure for the Darién lowlands, a biologically rich area that marks the easternmost extent of several species whose ranges are more typical of adjacent Colombia. As we travel east we’ll keep an eye out for open-country birds such as White-tailed Kite, Savannah Hawk, and Crested Caracara. In the Nusagandi area, a forested valley managed and protected by the local Guna people we’ll make a trek along one of the winding, occasionally steep and/or muddy trails through the forest, looking for local specialties. Our principal target here is the enigmatic Sapayoa, a monotypic family that has recently been shown to be related to the colourful Old World broadbills. Given enough time we’ll also bird along the main road, where tanager flocks containing Tawny-crested, Sulphur-rumped, Black-and-yellow, Rufous-winged, and Speckled Tanagers can be common. We’ll then head farther east past Lake Bayano for a stop at a small restaurant with hummingbird feeders and dense gardens. While having lunch we should see Snowy-bellied, Rufous-tailed, Scaly-breasted, and Sapphire-throated Hummingbirds and a nice mix of open-country birds. After lunch we’ll continue on into the Darién, arriving at the Canopy Camp in the early evening. Night at the Canopy Camp.
Day 3: We’ll spend most of our first full day here birding around the camp and on some of its many forest trails. A dawn start will allow us to experience the sounds of the forest waking up. Yellow-throated and Keel-billed Toucans and Red-lored, Mealy, and Blue-headed Parrots should all be perched around the camp clearing, and White-bellied Antbirds and chattering mixed flocks will call from the forest edge. After breakfast we’ll make our way to one of the nearby camp trails, where we’ll seek out Darién specialities such as Double-banded Graytail, Barred Puffbird, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Yellow-breasted Flycatcher, and the diminutive and beautiful Golden-headed Manakin. After lunch and some relaxation that could include watching Pale-bellied Hermits and Sapphire-throated Hummingbirds attending flowers and feeders around the camp, we’ll again head out on a nearby trail looking for a host of great birds. We hope to encounter raucous Red-throated Caracaras or perhaps a nice mixed flock with Bright-rumped Attila, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, or Cinnamon Becard. Depending on the conditions of the day, we may also venture out to a stretch of the nearby Pan American Highway. Near the little-travelled end of the road, the birding can be excellent, with such possibilities as Spectacled Parrotlet, Bicolored Wren, and a host of more open-country birds as well. After dinner we’ll step outside to look for nightbirds around the clearing: Crested, Spectacled, and Mottled Owls are all possible, as are Great and Common Potoos and Common Pauraques. Night at the Canopy Camp.
Day 4: Today we’ll head to the northeast, entering the lands of the Embera people, between the end of the Pan-American Highway and the Colombian border. We’ll head for the small community of Nuevo Vigia Embera, arriving via the ‘local highway’, that is to say, by dugout canoes. Initially we’ll spend time in a mix of agricultural fields and scrub where we hope to find Striped Cuckoo, Plain-breasted Ground-Dove, Smooth-billed Ani, Giant and Shiny Cowbirds, and a wide array of tanagers, pigeons, and raptors. Farther along on the road we’ll cross the Cuchunaque River, keeping an eye out for waterbirds such as Pied Water-Tyrant and also for Neotropical River Otters plying the banks. After the river crossing we’ll start to see patches of good forest, where we hope to encounter Black Antshrike, White-bellied, and Bare-crowned Antbirds, Barred, Pied, and White-necked Puffbirds, and perhaps parrots like Chestnut-fronted Macaw or Spectacled Parrotlet. Small wetlands are scattered along the road here, supporting large numbers of Wattled Jacana and perhaps Green Ibis or the generaly scarce Black-collared Hawk. We’ll look especially hard for Dusky-backed Jacamar, a poorly known species with a small worldwide range that occurs along the creeks here. A short walk into the forest to a sheltered oxbow lake could produce views of Rufescent and Bare-throated Tiger-Herons or perhaps even Boat-billed or Agami Herons as well as Green-and-rufous and American Pygmy Kingfishers. On this trail we also have a chance of seeing several of the harder-to-find Darien specialities, such as Gray-cheeked Nunlet, Golden-green Woodpecker, and Black-billed Flycatcher. This visit will also give us an opportunity to make a quick stop in a small Embera village, where local artisans sell intricately woven baskets and masks. Night at the Canopy Camp.
Day 5: After breakfast we’ll drive to the El Salto Road, just a few minutes from camp, for the morning. Extending about 3.5 miles from the Pan-American Highway and ending at the banks of the Chucunaque River, the road passes through dry forest that harbours Scaled and Ruddy Pigeons, Chestnut-fronted Macaw, Black and Crested Oropendolas, Golden-green Woodpecker, and the flashy Orange-crowned Oriole. The road winds along a ridge that occasionally offers a good view of the open sky, where we could see some of the thousands of raptors that pass through Panama on their way from their North American breeding grounds. We’ll look for familiar species (to North Americans) such as Broad-winged, Short-tailed, and Swainson’s Hawks, joining more tropical species such as Crane Hawk, Double-toothed Kite, and perhaps Black or Ornate Hawk Eagle. A short trail near the end of the road runs along the Cuchunaque River and gives access to a dry forest patch where we’ll look for birds such as Rufous-tailed Jacamar and Great Antshrike, and perhaps even encounter an antswarm with attendant Northern Barred Woodcreepers or Gray-headed Tanagers. In the afternoon we’ll head south along the road to Las Lagunas. Extending about 7.5 miles from the Pan-American Highway, the road crosses several small streams and terminates at some large ponds. Here we’ll look for Muscovy Duck, Rufescent Tiger-Heron, Capped Heron, Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, Buff-breasted Wren, Black-capped Donacobius, Shiny and Giant Cowbirds, and Yellow-hooded Blackbird. Raptors abound in the ranchlands as well, and we’ll look for Savannah Hawk, White-tailed and Pearl Kites, Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture, and Bat and Aplomado Falcons. Recent excellent sightings here include several views of Little Cuckoo, a species that barely crosses into North America. Night at the Canopy Camp.
Day 6: The destination for this day will be somewhat flexible, but will involve an all day trip into the Darien National Park, again using a combination of four-wheel drive trucks and dugout canoe to access primary forest. If there are any known nesting sites for Harpy or Crested Eagle that are feasibly reachable from the camp we shall make the attempt. If not, we’ll visit the town of El Real, a small village adjacent to the park that is accessed via an hour-long boat ride from the end of the highway at Yaviza. While on the river we’ll watch the water’s edge for Common Black and Black-collared Hawks, Neotropic Cormorant, Anhinga, a host of herons including Cocoi and perhaps Capped, White, and Green Ibis, shorebirds, and Black Oropendola. High quality forest lies within a half-hour drive of town, and we’ll seek out an array of lowland specialities such as Ruddy Pigeon, Great Jacamar, Red-throated Caracara, Chestnut-fronted and Great Green Macaws and an array of other raptors that might include Black, Ornate or Black-and-White Hawk-Eagles. Night at the Canopy Camp.
Day 7: We’ll start with an early breakfast followed by our farewell to the Canopy Camp. On the way back to Panama City we’ll stop at the San Francisco Nature Reserve, a 1300-acre private forest reserve managed by the St. Francis Foundation. Established in 2001 by Father Pablo Kasuboski, an American priest from Wisconsin, the reserve protects the headwaters of the main rivers of the area as well as its wildlife. The foundation also works on infrastructure development, building and maintaining aqueducts, roads, schools, and churches. The reserve has a variety of habitats — primary, secondary, and riparian forests, forest edge, fields, farmland, ponds, and wetlands— and during our morning here we’ll explore some of them along the short entrance road.We hope to find Boat-billed Heron, Great Jacamar, Broad-billed Motmot, Rufous-winged Schiffornis, Royal Flycatcher, Yellow-green Tyrannulet, Central American Pygmy-Owl, and Blue and Plain-breasted Ground-Doves. Coming back into Panama City, we’ll stop at several prime birding areas around Lake Bayano, the Río Torti, and the Río Mono to track down any species we may have missed on the drive east. We’ll reach our hotel near the airport in the late afternoon. Night in Panama City.
Day 8: The trip concludes this morning in Panama City.
Updated: 17 November 2020