Views of Panama

Birding in Darién

Panama has always been recognized as an ideal place for birding in particular, and observing neotropical fauna in general. The inter-oceanic country’s sprawling urban areas and less-populated rural areas both feature paths and protected spaces well-suited for this activity. However, it is in untamed Darién, the country’s largest province, where this hobby becomes an adventure.

Text and Photos: Kevin McCarthy

My headlamp illuminates the path from our tent to the dining area. It is just after 3:00 a.m. and the staff is hard at work in the kitchen preparing a hot breakfast of bacon and eggs for us before we begin our hour-long drive south on the Pan-American Highway to the highway’s end in the town of Yaviza.

I slept little last night, excited by our upcoming day of travel into the Darien Gap and our quest to find and photograph a harpy eagle, the national bird of Panama. We sip hot coffee as our guide, Carlos Bethancourt, briefs us on the events planned for the day ahead of us. It will prove to be a long but exceedingly successful day.

The previous morning Carlos met my friend Eric Grossman and me in the lobby of our hotel in Panama City. Eric is an attorney for Shell Oil and we have traveled together for years in pursuit of all manner of wildlife. It was early and the streets were nearly deserted as we made our way south along the Pan-American Highway. Five hours later we arrived at the Canopy Camp, deep in the Darien province. And today we are off to the Darien Gap.

Our journey into the Darien Gap begins in Yaviza, where we board a thirty-eight-foot motorized canoe and head south down the Chucunaque River, which is Panama’s longest. The dock area is surprisingly busy at this early hour, just after 4:00 a.m., as scores of people mill about waiting to board various canoes.

We push off in the eerie stillness of the early morning.  There is no moon visible and the surroundings are as black as ink. I shine the beam of my flashlight into the pitch blackness across the river and hundreds of bright green eyes look back at me. The river is loaded with caimans. I hope the canoe is stable and I won’t find myself in the water.

Just thinking about being in the Darien Gap is enough to generate extreme excitement. It is a wild untamed place, as different from the modern high rise urbanity of Panama City as conceivably possible. The Darien Gap also marks the only break in the nearly 19,000-mile-long Pan-American Highway, which runs along the entirety of North, Central, and South America.

In Panama, the Pan-American Highway ends at the town of Yaviza. There is little, besides rivers and a few isolated Indian villages, between Yaviza and the Colombian border, 100 miles to the south, where the Highway picks up again.

The rainforest in the Darien Gap is one of the most impenetrable in the world. Most of the travel south of Yaviza, where the highway pauses, is done by boat on the river. After a thrilling hour-long boat ride we arrive at the village of El Real de Santa Maria without incident. Some of the villages, like El Real de Santa Maria, where we disembark from our motorized canoe to make our way deeper into the Darien Gap, have local roads into the jungle that are traveled by a few marginally maintained motor vehicles.

We are met by a local who drives us out of town and deeper into the jungle. The rutted dirt road results in a slow and rough ride.

An hour later we arrive at the trailhead where we are met by three Embera Indians from the village of Pijibasal. The Embera are known as the “Keepers of the Rainforest.” They hoist coolers filled with water onto their shoulders, and with machetes at the ready they are off at an incredible speed down the trail. Days earlier they used their machetes to cut a trail through the rainforest to the harpy eagle nest site, where we arrive after an hour’s walk.

The harpy eagle is the top avian predator in Panama and throughout the rainforests of South America. With a wingspan of nearly seven feet and talons resembling the claws of a grizzly bear, it is a formidable bird. Monkeys and sloths are wary of the harpy eagle since they show up frequently on the eagle’s menu. Harpy eagles are found elsewhere, but nowhere else are they as accessible as in Panama. Searching for them along the Amazon Basin requires a significant expedition that often proves fruitless. Weeks of time and significant expense are required, with no guarantee of success.

The harpy eaglet stays in the nest tree for a year and a half, being fed a steady diet of sloths and monkeys by both parents.

We immediately encounter the recently fledged harpy eaglet we have come to see. It flew to nearby trees, but the nearly full-grown bird remained in the area, constantly calling for its parents to bring food. The remains of a full grown sloth skeleton beneath the tree are evidence of its diet.

We spend many hours photographing the eaglet and its mother before we reluctantly make the return journey to the Canopy Camp, our temporary home in the jungle. By 8:00 p.m. that evening we are at the camp, enjoying a glass of wine and eating dinner, served family style, in the outdoor pavilion. The loud cries of howler monkeys fill the air. They sound like they are in the darkness just outside the camp, but their howls can be deceiving as the sound can travel up to three miles in the dense rainforest. It is a fitting ending to a tremendous day.

The next morning at breakfast we marvel at a group of Geoffroy’s Tamarins in the trees twenty feet away. We discuss our next photographic pursuit while again enjoying a fortifying breakfast and sipping steaming hot morning coffee.

The slightly smaller and more sparsely distributed crested eagle is the only bird in the rainforest that might be confused with the harpy eagle. Carlos has a lead on a location of one nest and that is our next pursuit. No boat ride today; instead, we climb into Carlos’ SUV and head down bumpy logging roads into the rainforest. Five miles in we are thrilled to spot a rare crab-eating fox. Carlos mentions that in a lifetime of being in the rainforest this is the first time he has seen one. It stares at us for a few minutes before running off the road and into the dense undergrowth.

Again we are met at the trailhead by three Embera, this time from the village of Sinai. We excitedly tell them of our crab-eating fox sighting. They outdo us, however, and inform us that on the five mile walk from the village of Sanai they encountered an ocelot along the side of the logging road.

Again, our Embera guides hoist coolers filled with water onto their shoulders and are off in a flash down the trail. This turns out to be a much easier hike and twenty minutes later we are watching a crested eagle in her nest. The crested eagle may limit competition with the harpy eagle by generally taking smaller prey.

Birding in the Darien is truly an amazing opportunity and having a guide like Carlos Bethancourt makes the adventure all the more enjoyable.

Carlos can hear birds in the distance and immediately identify the species. He then isolates the bird’s approximate location in the rainforest and soon after we are looking at it with our binoculars.

But the days spent at the harpy and crested eagle nests are not the end to our adventure. Carlos Bethancourt knows the Darien province like the back of his hand and he shows us all forms of wildlife and introduces us to many indigenous people in the villages of Pijibasal and Sinai, as well as a third village along the Tuesa River in the Darien.

We are amazed at the various species of colorful birds and their abundance. There are almost 1,000 species of birds in Panama; of these species, seven are endemic, and ten are endangered worldwide.

In addition to the harpy and crested eagles, some other birds of note include red-crowned and crimson-crested woodpeckers, black-tailed trogon, keel-billed toucan, golden and golden-headed manakins, long-tailed tyrant, and cocoi heron, to name just a few. Our time in the Darien was amazing. I can’t wait for my next visit.


Where to Stay

Canopy Camp offers comfortable lodging and birding facilities. There are eight 2-person, safari-style tents equipped with round-the-clock electricity provided by a bank of solar panels; other amenities include fans, a private bathroom just outside the tent, and an outdoor, hot-water shower.

What to Eat

The camp serves family-style meals and provides box lunches if you plan to be away in the field at mid-day.

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