Friday, 15 January 2016

Panama - Day 10 (March 9, 2014)


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It was bound to be another hot, sunny day in central America as we drove east towards the town of Yaviza. Yaviza is located at the terminus of the Pan-American Highway, which spans south from Alaska through to Panama. After the Darién Gap, it picks up again in Turbo, Colombia, continuing south to a few spots in southern South America. The drive to Yaviza was not bad for the first few hours, but as we approached the number of potholes and gravel sections increased. We passed through numerous security checkpoints along our route, and were prepared with documents filled out by Isaac (to register in the national park) as well as copies of our passports. Luckily, these checkpoints were relatively easy to pass through. 

The drive passed through countryside consisting of agricultural fields, pastures, small towns and patches of forest. As we approached Yaviza, we came across some more forest and a greater percentage of wild land. A calling Pale-breasted Spinetail while still a ways out of town was a new bird for us, while a Gray-necked Wood-Rail calling as we entered Yavisa was new for me. 

Yaviza was crowded, as all frontier towns often are. We drove the narrow streets looking for Isaac, eventually finding him near the waterfront. Isaac joined us as we drove to a government building to register for access in the National Park. That taken care of, we bought a few supplies and headed down to the docks. 

We hopped in a long, narrow canoe with an outboard motor and prepared for our 90 minute journey down the Rio Chucunaque.

enjoying the river - Rio Chucunaque, Darién, Panama

fishing - Rio Chucunaque, Darién, Panama

It was interesting watching the bird life from a boat, especially one that is going at a pretty good clip. Our driver knew that we were interested in birds, so if we saw something interesting he tried to manouver the boat into a good location. Wading birds such as most of the regular herons were seen, while a Black Oropendola was perched near the top of a riverside tree.

Snowy Egret - Rio Chucunaque, Darién, Panama

Snowy Egret - Rio Chucunaque, Darién, Panama

 We passed several similar looking boats to ours during the trip, each loaded down with plantains that were harvested in nearby plantations.

plantain transport - Rio Chucunaque, Darién, Panama

An adult Collared Forest-Falcon flew across the river in front of our boat at one point, providing an excellent highlight! It would get even better as we turned down a quiet tributary of the Rio Chucunaque. In quick succession we had a flyover of a rare Black-collared Hawk, followed by an excellent look at a male Blue Cotinga. It was my second ever look at a cotinga and first good look at a bright male Blue Cotinga - what a smart-looking bird!

Black-collared Hawk - Rio Chucunaque, Darién, Panama

Blue Cotinga - Rio Chucunaque, Darién, Panama

We arrived in the town of El Real, Isaac's hometown, only accessible by boat. We filled up at a nearby restaurant on chicken, beans and rice, then set off on foot through the town while Isaac tried to arrange transport for us. We had a long walk into the forest to reach Rancho Frio, the ranger station at the edge of Parque Nacional Darién. From here we had a long hike upwards to Cerro Pirre, where we hoped to find all our target birds along a narrow ridge. We would be camping in the forest for two nights at a makeshift campsite known as "Rancho Plastico".

We walked to the other end of town and were picked up by a large bus already with a few locals inside. Once inside they drove back into town as apparently a few more people wanted to come along for the ride, while blasting the Reggaeton. We also stopped at a small convenience store to pick up a few six packs of beer for the ride! It was a pretty awesome trip in this party bus, and we were all feeling it a little by the time we arrived at our destination down the road to the forest edge.

Pale-bellied Hermit - hike to Racho Frio, Darién, Panama

Bats found on an old shed - hike to Racho Frio, Darién, Panama

We hiked down a trail leading towards the national park, making one last detour to stop at a small farm, where we picked up some papaya, pineapple and bananas for our trip.

As we continued hiking, Isaac picked out quite a few birds by sight, including some difficult to spot birds such as the above Pale-bellied Hermit. A few other of our Darién target birds were found despite the mid-day heat including good looks at a Black Oropendola. This Roadside Hawk provided an excellent photo subject as it perched at the edge of the trail.

Roadside Hawk - hike to Racho Frio, Darién, Panama

Roadside Hawk - hike to Racho Frio, Darién, Panama

As we walked deeper into our forest towards the National Park, it slowly began to feel like we were entering a larger area of mature forest. The vegetation reflected this, as did the bird species .Even the cicadas appeared to be a much louder drone. We came across across a few more interesting species, such as this White-fronted Nunbird, a Choco Sirystes and a pair of Scarlet-browed Tanagers, the latter two species restricted to eastern Panama and south along the Pacific lowlands in the Chocó to northern Ecuador.

White-fronted Nunbird - hike to Racho Frio, Darién, Panama

We hiked for several more hours, making good time whenever we were not interrupted by birds. Finally, in late afternoon, Isaac took us down a side trail to where he had a special bird staked-out. We stood under the massive tree and after a few seconds spotted the target bird, a Harpy Eagle. Harpy Eagles are one of the world's largest eagle species, living in large tropical forests and feeding on monkeys and sloths that it catches in the canopy.  Individuals have large home ranges, and so they are never found in a high density, even in high-quality forest. Making this species even more difficult to encounter, Harpy Eagles spend large amounts of the day perching quietly in the canopy, looking for prey items. They rarely soar, though that wouldn't help much in locating them either, given the habitat they occupy. Few suitable forests remain in Central America, meaning the Darién is the last stronghold in this part of the world for Harpy Eagles. They are a bit more common in South America, particularly in forests in Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador and Peru.

This individual Harpy Eagle is a subadult that hatched from a particular nest that Isaac has been monitoring for a while. The adults were not present at the time and were not currently nesting. Isaac knows these birds really well and is usually quite successful in showing the few birders that show up here these Harpy Eagles. The Harpy Eagle was my 400th trip bird, according to eBird!

Harpy Eagle - hike to Racho Frio, Darién, Panama

Harpy Eagle - hike to Racho Frio, Darién, Panama

Steve was particularly thrilled with the Harpy Eagle!

stolen from Facebook

With one of our main Darién targets in the bag, we had a bit more spring in our step as we continued on for the last hour to the park headquarters.

We arrived with the last hour of light and met the ranger who ran the station here. He was the only one present, and the station considered of a larger main building and a handful of small cabins around the periphery of the mostly cleared area. Several tall trees stood amongst the buildings, and it was located next to the clear water of a stream.

After digging into some of the food we brought, we picked out our sleeping quarters. I roomed with Dave in a small building with two sets of bunkbeds and an old desk with some books on it, including a reference guide (in Spanish) to the mammals of this part of the world. A pretty interesting read, and I believe we even identified the bats from earlier in the day, though I can't find where I wrote down the species.

That evening we strapped on our headlamps, grabbed our flashlights and cameras, and headed to the creek to do some herping! I was excited to finally get a chance to see some Darién herps, though unfortunately I did not have a field guide with me (there is no good Panama herp guide yet). We did quite well on frogs, though it was fairly dry and most reptiles eluded us. Below is a selection of photos from that evening's nighthike. The elastic bands restraining my wonky camera flash in place did enough of a job to be useful.

 - Racho Frio, Parque Nacional Darién, Panama

 - Racho Frio, Parque Nacional Darién, Panama

 - Racho Frio, Parque Nacional Darién, Panama

 - Racho Frio, Parque Nacional Darién, Panama

 - Racho Frio, Parque Nacional Darién, Panama

Smilisca silaRacho Frio, Parque Nacional Darién, Panama

 - Racho Frio, Parque Nacional Darién, Panama

 - Racho Frio, Parque Nacional Darién, Panama

Hyalinobatrachium aureoguttatum (Atrato Glass Frog) - Racho Frio, Parque Nacional Darién, Panama

 - Racho Frio, Parque Nacional Darién, Panama

Hypsiboas rosenbergi (Rosenberg's Gladiator Treefrog) - Racho Frio, Parque Nacional Darién, Panama

 - Racho Frio, Parque Nacional Darién, Panama

 - Racho Frio, Parque Nacional Darién, Panama

 - Racho Frio, Parque Nacional Darién, Panama

We fell asleep by 10:00 o'clock or so, excited to bird the pristine forest surrounding the ranger station the following morning, before beginning the hike up Cerro Pirre. It was bound to be an exciting day!

Total bird species so far: 400

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