Sunday, 17 January 2016

Panama - Day 11 (March 10, 2014)


As we woke up on our first morning in the Darién the first few birds had already began singing. As I stepped outside the cabin the surrounding forest slowly became alive with song from the species found in the lowland mature forest. Right away we encountered a few new birds, such as Red-throated Caracaras which were calling off in the distance, a Stripe-throated Wren and a Slate-throated Gnatcatcher. After a quick breakfast we headed out on the trails, with the goal of searching for a Crested Eagle near a recently used nest. Isaac led us to the tree where the nest was located, and we looked and listened for the birds. We ended up spending over an hour in the vicinity of the nest, but unfortunately the bird was a no-show for the day. 

Crested Eagle nest - near Rancho Frio, Darién, Panama

We slowly wandered our way back to Rancho Frio through the forest, picking up new birds here and there, though with few sightings of small mixed species flocks. Another target bird was the Crimson-bellied Woodpecker, but it too remained out of sight. 

The ranger station (Rancho Frio) is located at about 100 m above sea level, while the Pirre specialites are found higher up in the pre-montane forest. We had now seen most of the lowland birds (with a few holes to fill in later) and were excited to journey towards the ridge near the summit of Cerro Pirre. Eventually we arrived back at the station, where a little bit of birding was in order as we packed up our gear, had a bite to eat and prepared to hike to our next destination. I went to cool off in the stream - always a good choice when in the tropics!

photo taken by Steve Pike

The drone of cicadas increased in volume as we began walking, and we soon felt the effects of the late-morning tropical heat and humidity combined with having to carry a large pack. The ground was mostly level for the first section, and there were frequent distractions as we walked. This Dendrobates auratus was one of several seen that morning. This is one of the more frequently encountered dart frog in Central America, ranging in the forested lowlands and sub-montane areas from Nicaragua southeast to northwest Colombia. 

Dendrobates auratus (Black-and-green Dart Frog) -  Rancho Frio, Darién, Panama

Birding while carrying a full pack with all your food, water, optical equipment and camping gear is a bit of a challenge, but we made do. My camera's strap is actually quite conducive to this as it allows me to swing my camera up from my hip. That way it would not get caught on the shoulder strap of the pack. Many birders who make the trek to Cerro Pirre hire locals from El Real to carry their packs up for them, but as birders on a budget and with relatively limited gear we had no problem with the idea of carrying all of our own stuff.

Another welcome distraction was this pair of Great Jacamars, keenly spotted by Isaac.

Great Jacamar - between Rnacho Frio and Rancho Plastico, Darién, Panama

Great Jacamars - between Rnacho Frio and Rancho Plastico, Darién, Panama

Great Jacamar - between Rnacho Frio and Rancho Plastico, Darién, Panama

The trail started ascending the foothills of Cerro Pirre, and ever so slowly the birdlife changed with the elevation. We encountered some small mixed flocks of tanagers, while new sightings slowly appeared. Lemon-spectacled Tanager in particular was exciting to encounter, as it is limited to the Chocó region, from the Darién south along the Pacific coast to northern Ecuador.

After climbing a particular steep section that required hauling oneself up a 45 degree muddy slope by means of a rope, we were briefly entertained by our first Yellow-eared Toucanet of the trip, providing excellent looks at relatively close range. Unfortunately, I was in the middle of climbing the steep section and it was all I could do to brace myself and look at it through my bins, much less attempt a photo.

Not two minutes later I caught a flurry of wings out of my peripheral vision and turned to see a large raptor land in the dark understory. It was an Ornate Hawk-Eagle! We all grabbed our cameras and fired off some shots with this rare opportunity. I can certainly say that I wasn't expecting to see any hawk-eagle landing 15 feet away from me on this trip!

Ornate Hawk-Eagle - between Rnacho Frio and Rancho Plastico, Darién, Panama

Ornate Hawk-Eagle - between Rnacho Frio and Rancho Plastico, Darién, Panama

Isaac's keen eyes spotted another gem against the dappled forest understory. This time it was a tiny Central American Pygmy-Owl, perched quietly on a horizontal branch.

Central American Pygmy-Owl - between Rnacho Frio and Rancho Plastico, Darién, Panama

Pygmy-owls are diurnal, unusual among many species of owls. They can be quite active hunters, going after small mammals, birds, reptiles and large insects.

Central American Pygmy-Owl - between Rnacho Frio and Rancho Plastico, Darién, Panama

We continued onwards, pressing through the steep sections while taking frequent water breaks. All three of us had our shirts off eventually in the oppressive heat, while Isaac hardly broke a sweat! At several locations along the trail the forest gave way to a stunning vista. In all directions there was virtually nothing but forest, with the occasional reminder of civilization mixed in on the horizon.

looking back to the west - Darién, Panama

We were standing at one such vista when we spotted what could be mistaken for a Bay-headed Tanager, but the mostly green underparts identified it as a Rufous-winged Tanager, another life bird for me.

As we were walking, someone found another target bird. I was lagging behind but caught up quickly with the excitement of the Sharpbill, up high in the canopy! It eventually perched on an open snag, providing great unobstructed views. We ended up hearing another Sharpbill later on - they have a pretty distinctive descending song (check it out!).

The Sharpbill is a unique little bird, with drab plumage, an orange crest, a straight, pointed beak, and scaling on the upper breast, neck and head. It doesn't appear very similar to any other bird species. Some consider it the sole member of the family Oxyruncidae, while others think it is a better fit in Tityridae, a family consisting of the tityras, mourners, schiffornises, purpletufts, and becards among a few others. Sharpbills are widespread but uncommon, preferring dense forest and rarely venturing to the understorey.

Sharpbill - between Rnacho Frio and Rancho Plastico, Darién, Panama

At one bend in the trail, we looked up to see a White-headed Wren working away in a tangle near the top of a small tree. We also heard some Red-and-green Macaws calling from somewhere off in the distance, while a Barred Hawk flew low over the canopy, providing brief, obstructed views. It was a great day of birding, especially considering that our primary goal was reaching the next camp, known as "Rancho Plastico".
By late afternoon we finally saw evidence of the camp, up ahead along a ridge. It had been a long, hot day of hiking, but worth it with a good variety of target Darién birds!

Rancho Plastico (photo taken by Steve Pike)

Rancho Plastico consisted of a clearing along a wide part of the ridge, with several makeshift benches and a table made from local wood. There were quite a few empty plastic bottles here to fetch water from the nearby creek, hence its name.

The birding did not end even as we had arrived at our camp for the night. There was still plenty of daylight and the birds were still active. A big surprise was a calling Choco Tinamou off in the forest, yet another target species for the Darién. We wandered off in search of it, and after a quiet twenty minutes stalking the bird several of us had quick but decent glimpses of the bird walking and running through the understorey. Awesome!!

As we returned back to the camp, a Wing-banded Antbird was spotted. It took some patience, but eventually we were all treated to great views of this skulky species that is very sparsely distributed in north Nicaragua, Panama, northeast Ecuador and Amazonia. After a while the bird provided excellent looks and even allowed us the opportunity for photos in the dying light.

Wing-banded Antbird - Rancho Plastico, Darién, Panama

Yet another target bird appeared. This time it was a Tody Motmot! Dave and I were pretty sure that we had one fly by just as we had arrived at the ridge and were walking towards the camp. Not long after, a Tody Motmot was discovered around the camp! The light was quite low at this point, but I was happy just to have some record shots of this tough species in Panama.

Tody Motmot - Rancho Plastico, Darién, Panama

We were firmly in the low foothills at this point, at around an elevation of 600 m. Our plan for the next day was to get up early, hike to a ridge near the summit of Cerro Pirre, bird the ridge for half the day, and descent back to Rancho Plastico. It would be an exhausting day, but hopefully worth it as several endemic species awaited us. 

Total bird species so far: 424

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