Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Panama - The Darién Gap

Mar 9

This post is going to be a bit of a long one, I'm afraid!

After two early mornings in a row, we had a bit of a sleep-in (relatively) this morning, and hit the road sometime around 730, headed eastward into the sunrise after adding Shiny Cowbird to the Panama tally. After a few hours on a steadily deteriorating road, passing through several military checkpoints, we reached our destination of Yaviza. This town marks the southern end of the northern portion of the Panamerican Highway, and the beginning of the Darién Gap, which was listed on the travel.gc website as a 'no-go' zone (and still is). Of course we ignored this and after meeting up with Isaac (our guide for the next few days, and necessary to enter the region), picking up some supplies and dropping our car off at the police station, we loaded up our pirogue and were off down the Rio Chucunaque.

Our driver had excellent eyes, and we made a few stops along the way to El Real, picking up Black-collared Hawk and Black Oropendola for the trip. Other highlights on this stretch included Blue Cotinga (a nice male this time!) and a Collared Forest-Falcon which flew across the river right in front of us. Arriving in El Real, we loaded up on chicken, rice and beans and packed ourselves into a rather large van which was full of locals. It turned out that most of them were just along for the ride as they had nothing else to do that day, and a few (many) beers later the bus was quite a party with the reggaeton blasting. We eventually made it to Pirre Uno, the jumping-off point for the trek into Darién National Park, and waited for a while until a guy showed up with a horse. We loaded our big packs onto it, and he took off southward down the trail. We followed a little more slowly on foot, birding our way into the park. Along the way we added Pale-bellied Hermit, White-fronted Nunbird, Choco Sirystes (at the time it was just Sirystes) and Scarlet-browed Tanager for the trip, and I picked up White-winged Becard for Panama.

Huge trees in Darien NP

A few hours later we arrived at a little side trail, where Isaac wandered off and motioned us to follow. A minute later, we were all staring up at a gargantuan avian predator - a Harpy Eagle!!! This two-year-old chick was at a nest site which Isaac had been monitoring - unfortunately the parents weren't around but we were all understandably excited nonetheless. This was definitely one of the trip highlights, seeing such a spectacular bird in the giant primary forest.

Harpy Eagle!

With that success under our belts, we pushed onward to the ranger station at Rancho Frío (no idea why it's called that as it's certainly not cold there!) which would be our base for the night. After getting settled in to the basic accommodations and getting some food into us, we went out for a bit of a night hike along the stream, turning up a good assortment of night critters! Josh has some better photos up on his blog, but we encountered quite a few frogs, lizards, giant spiders and other bugs before packing it in for the night.

Glass frog sp.

Josh with a Smoky Jungle Frog


Running trip total: 783
Panama: 517

Mar 10

We were all pretty eager to get going this morning and see what the Darién had to offer! Right away we picked up Slate-throated Gnatcatcher, Red-throated Caracara and Plumbeous Pigeon from our cabin, and Isaac and I heard a Double-banded Graytail calling, although we were unable to track it down or call it in. After a quick breakfast, we went off down a trail across the river, where Isaac knew of a Crested Eagle nest. Unfortunately for us, much searching and playback of the area failed to produce the youngster or either of the adults, and we had to console ourselves with our other eagle sighting the day before. Other birds of interest along the trail included Golden-headed Manakin and Stripe-throated Wren (trip birds), along with Great Curassow, Band-tailed Barbthroat, Great Green Macaw and Ocellated Antbird for the Panama portion. Around 10 it was heating up and we needed to make tracks for our next site, so we packed up and headed off up the mountain. The hike took us the rest of the day, partly due to exertion (carrying our packs up 8km of narrow path, gaining 600m elevation in 35+ degree heat!), but mostly due to the birds! The path provided us with some great birding, and spectacular views at a few miradors.

 It was a hot and steep climb!

 View from the first lookout

 From the second lookout

Along the way up we scored Yellow-eared Toucanet, Black-breasted Puffbird, Red-and-green Macaw, Russet-winged Schiffornis, White-headed Wren, Rufous-winged and Lemon-spectacled Tanagers and Central American Pygmy-Owl, all lifers. Barred Hawk and Rufous Piha were also new for Panama. We eventually arrived at our campsite for the night, Rancho Plastico (called that for the tarps that researchers used when they camped there). This was basically just a wide spot on the ridge (about 5-6m across!).

 Camp at Rancho Plastico

Of course, the birding didn't stop there, as we had heard Choco Tinamou calling off down the slope on our arrival. Ditching our stuff, we headed off after it, and after a bit of a search we eventually had good but brief looks at it! Back at camp, we set up our tents (well, Isaac and I did; Josh and Steve set up their hammocks) and birded around the site for a bit, picking up Tody Motmot, Wing-banded Antbird and Sharpbill. With all those great birds seen and the light almost gone, we made a dash down the opposite slope to a stream, ostensibly to get some water for the night but also to look (unsuccessfully) for Sharp-tailed Streamcreeper. Josh and I stayed until after dark, finding more herps and bugs to photograph before calling it a night!

Running trip total: 799
Panama: 541

Mar 11

This was arguably my most-anticipated day of the trip, as we were heading to the top of Cerro Pirre, a spot not too many birders had visited! Expecting an early start, and due to excitement, I was up well before dawn (before my alarm even) and packed up/ready to go before anyone else had even rolled out of their sleeping bags. Unfortunately not everyone was so organized, and we missed a few hours on the ridge because of this... While waiting, Josh and I did a bit of birding around the camp, adding Speckled Mourner to the Panama list and seeing/hearing a number of the birds we'd had on the way up the day prior. Eventually Steve had his things in order and we were off, about two hours later than planned for. The hike up to the top took us about three hours, although 'hike' is maybe not the right term. The trail here is sort of half-visible in the undergrowth, and you gain 600m+ of elevation over a one-kilometre or so stretch! This means that a good chunk of the time you are hauling yourself up near-vertical slopes on all fours...

The 'path' to the top!

 Steve crawling up

The birding, however, is nothing short of fantastic, and we quickly racked up many new birds amongst the mixed flocks. First up was a White-whiskered Hermit which buzzed by me and landed right in front of Josh and Isaac, giving me ok looks while the other two had fantastic views (#800 for the trip!). At the time I don't think there were any accepted records for Panama (or North America for that matter), although now there appears to be a few on eBird, including one from near this spot. Other new birds on the walk up included Gray-and-gold Tanager, Orange-bellied Euphonia, Green-fronted Lancebill, and our first endemic - the Pirre Chlorospingus. Nearing the top, we came across a mixed flock with a pair of Green-naped Tanagers in it (another endemic), unfortunately Josh and I only saw their tails as they disappeared into the fog, never to be seen again. Once we got to the top (where there is a campsite that looking back, I wish we'd camped at!), we had a water break and then ditched our packs to walk along the ridge.

 Made it! Already birding during our water break

 Walking the ridge

The third mirador, looking out toward Colombia which is about 35-40km away

All along the ridge was great birding, and we saw a lot of new birds, although we didn't find the rare Beautiful Treerunner. Highlights included Choco Tapaculo, Tooth-billed and Pirre Hummingbirds, Sooty-headed Wren, Varied Solitaire, Pirre Warbler, Yellow-backed Tanager, Yellow-green Grosbeak and Yellow-collared Chlorophonia.

 Pirre Hummingbird

We also heard a Dusky Pigeon calling from up there, another species with only a few records for North America but which is probably regular in parts of the Darien. As the day wore on, we needed to make tracks for our camp if we were to have time for a few other specialties. Heading back down (mainly sliding down the steep trail), Isaac's keen eyes picked up a Russet-crowned Quail-Dove hiding in the undergrowth, providing nice views, and further on a Sapayoa!

 If anything the descent was more difficult!

Arriving back at camp around 4:30pm, we made a beeline for the stream just down the ridge, and quickly picked up Red-headed Barbet along with Dull-mantled and Zeledon's Antbirds. After a lot of searching, we eventually had quick views of a Sharp-tailed Streamcreeper, this being one of the few sites in North America for it. As darkness was falling, we managed to squeak out one last good bird near the stream with a Black-crowned Antpitta that skulked around in the half-light. After dinner, Josh and Steve were busy setting up their hammocks (we had taken most of our stuff down as Isaac had told us we'd be camping on top of the ridge, only to cancel this plan in favour of coming back to bird the stream), and I was grabbing a bite to eat when the first raindrops started falling. I quickly shoved my gear in my tent, and Josh and Steve managed to split their priority gear between mine and Isaac's tents, just in time for the deluge to begin. Unfortunately Josh didn't get his rain tarp up in time, and spent the night more than a little soaked. Luckily this rain (the first we'd seen for quite a while) had held off until after we'd descended the ridge, as hiking that beast when it's wet would be a nightmare.

Running trip total: 823
Panama: 571

Mar 12

Once again we were up early, and spent some time packing up our gear and eating breakfast while enjoying our last hours on the mountain. This allowed us to pick up Black-eared Wood-Quail and Rufous-winged Antwren, albeit both heard-only. As we had a fair ways to go, we didn't linger long at the camp and started making our way hastily back to Rancho Frío. Of course, we made a few stops for birds along the way, picking up a heard-only Plumbeous Hawk that was frustratingly flying circles around us just above the (rather dense) canopy and a rather more cooperative pair of Gray-cheeked Nunlets.

 Isaac raising a Panamanian flag at the lookout

A funky grasshopper

Back at Rancho Frio we broke for lunch and then made another assault on the Crested Eagle nest (not literally), once again coming up empty. Others who were there later in the year got the bird so not sure what it was doing while we were around! Our consolation prize was a Rufous-breasted Hermit before we made the long walk back to Pirre Uno. On the way we saw another of my most-wanted birds in the area - Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant, one of the smallest passerines in the world! They are like tiny balls of energy bouncing around in the canopy constantly emitting their little tick notes. Back at Pirre Uno we waited around for our truck to show up (the party van wasn't available this day, but some nice cold beers were still had - essential after hiking >50km in 3 days) and then got a ride to the El Real airport. The driver paused long enough on the return journey to let us admire the ridge we'd just climbed over the past few days.

Cerro Pirre

Our ride! and beer

Josh and I discovered the roof was a good vantage point

At the airport, we had barely arrived when our first target showed well - Spot-breasted Woodpecker. Next up were some Spectacled Parrotlets at a nearby spot that Isaac knew, and on our drive back to the hotel a White-thighed Swallow flew overhead. After crushing two plates of chicken, rice and beans (what else?), Steve and I were pumped to go look for some owls near the airport, while Josh was feeling the 50k we'd just walked. We struck out on owls but got distant spotlit looks at a perched Great Potoo calling away in the darkness. A fantastic final day in the wilds of the Darien!

The El Real airport

Sunset on our last day

Running trip total: 833
Panama: 582

Mar 13

Our last morning in the area, we went for a bit of a walk around town, checking out the airport and a few other spots that Isaac knew, picking up more Spectacled Parrotlets along with Yellow-hooded Blackbird, Gray-capped and Willow Flycatchers, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Laughing Falcon and Mississippi Kite. Then it was time to load up the boat and head back to Yaviza, picking up Yellow-crowned Night-Heron for Panama along the way.

 Soaking up some sun on the way back to Yaviza

The river was quite busy with people and livestock!

In Yaviza we retrieved our car from the police, paid Isaac, said our goodbyes, and made our way back through the checkpoints to Torti, where we stayed at the same hotel we'd been at before. We made another trek down the sideroad a little ways from our hotel, seeing mostly the same stuff as before but with the added bonus of my lifer Royal Flycatcher. Unfortunately it wasn't doing the whole crest-waving thing, that'll have to wait for a future encounter! Today was mostly a travel day so not too much to write about; we celebrated our Darien success back at the hotel with some beverages!

Momma sloth with baby near Torti

Running trip total: 837
Panama: 591

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