Day in the Darién
On our first full day in Panama, Athena & I got the opportunity to go and see the Darién Province, we’d have to wake early and move fast but we could go if we wanted. Having heard about the new Canopy Camp for some time (open only this year but in planning for many previous), I of course jumped at the chance and Athena naturally came along (she’s an adventure junkie what can I say). We left the Canopy B&B before 4 AM and drove through the subdued traffic and lights of Panama City very early. Traveling East, I passed PTY airport and soon found myself in new & unfamiliar territory. I was torn wanting the sun to rise so I could see the terrain and habitats whizzing by, but also realized this would mean less precious daylight hours for our little Darién sampler, mixed emotions for sure.
It was raining making it darker later, but before long it was bright enough to appreciate the rugged ridges that dominated to my south. Nearly 2.5 hours since leaving Gamboa, our driver Lorenzo pulled into the Restaurante Hotel Portal Avicar where I saw my friend and Canopy Family guide, “Moyo” Rodriguez. On my first trip to Panama, Moyo had found a rare Roufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo at the Canopy Lodge just as we arrived, so I knew I was in good hands!
The restaurante proved to not only be a handy meeting spot just outside the Darién border, but a good spot to begin our birding adventure as I enjoyed some delicious & much-appreciated coffee and breakfast.
Hummingbirds zipped and zapped back and forth at the feeding station here and before I’d finished breakfast we’d already tallied numerous species. Snowy-bellied & Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds dominated with a handful of Scaly-breasted Hummingbirds.
Also present were a Rufous-breasted Hermit, a couple Long-billed Starthroats, & Black-throated Mango. Ruddy Ground-Dove & Blue Ground-Dove were singing here, an adult Short-tailed Hawk streamed over and the ever present Tropical Kingbirds chased a Crested Caracara down the main road making quite a fuss. All served as a reminder that there was more birding to do, so I finished quickly and climbed into the truck with Moyo to head into the fabled Darién.
In no time at all we’d crossed the Darién border and the road conditions degraded rapidly, forcing us to slow our roll considerably. I would have been upset about this slow down, except that the slower speeds meant easier roadside birding and the ride for me was as much a part of this adventure as reaching the final destination. We stopped for a small flock of birds at roadside and were rewarded almost instantly with views of two Darién specialties: a White-eared Conebill and a singing Black Antshrike! We then saw a (locally) rare Glossy Ibis mixing with Cattle Egrets.
A short while later, I spotted a gorgeous Spot-breasted Woodpecker (although some might argue it was spotted even before I arrived). I grabbed a quick documentation shot through the scope but it was still wholly overcast and gray.
Before too long though the skies cleared and I saw another, and another…
The one above had been bathing in the lingering roadside puddles deposited by the morning’s rains which had happily subsided. None-the-less, I joked that this were a different species the “Wet-breasted Woodpecker”, as it was more than a bit bedraggled. I guess I should have “spotted” this one as well! ;p
With slowdowns from rain, a stop for breakfast, potholed roads and birding stops it was near 10:30 AM when we finally reached the gates of the camp. All worthwhile as I was still satiated and happy, I’d already added 3 new Darién specialty birds to my world list and would undoubtedly add many more. Upon parking, I was greeted by Nando Quiroz, the director of Canopy Camp. He asked if I wanted coffee or something else to drink or eat. I declined saying, “No, I was only going to bird” with the huge grin typically only seen on young children on Christmas morning or just before they break into the birthday presents.
Nando laughed, and hefted my back and then led to my accommodations – an enormous, well-sealed wall tent on a raised platform with a spacious deck. He gave me a quick orientation explaining, “The entire operation is run on solar power that easily lasts through the day…”
“…the light switch is here, and you have a fan there… there are extra power outlets near the bed for a computer or to charge your phone, or camera batteries…”
My tent had an enormous bed room with a second smaller changing room in the back where I stowed my single bag. Continuing on, Nando showed me the bathroom next door. It had a separate shower in one half, & toilet & sink basin in the other. “The water is not potable but here is a personal 3 gallon water dispenser for drinking, & brushing your teeth…” Nando continued.
My mind wandered a bit as Nando explained the ropes… “hmmm… this is a lot more luxurious than I expected from a tent camp”, but such is the way with the Canopy Family so I should have known. Then, I cocked my head to make out one of the new bird sounds. Nando, recognized what I was doing immediately and filled the blanks, “That is the Sooty-headed Tyrannulet calling and over there the White-headed Wren.” That child-like grin returned to my face and I grabbed up my spotting scope balancing it over one shoulder and draping my trusty V-lux camera over the other. I re-zipped my tent and made my way back to the common area where Moyo was reading something from the Library.
I decided I could use a cup of coffee after all and stood on the deck surrounding the common area. All around me were slung hammocks and rockers calling to my tired body like a siren’s song. They looked oh so inviting, but fearing I’d fall fast asleep I stayed on my feet and scanned the grounds while sipping delicious coffee.
I heard and saw Boat-billed Flycatchers (like a large green-backed Kiskadee with a megabill) mixing with Plain-colored & Crimson-backed Tanagers under the canopy of the closest tree.
Then there was something else with them, a stunning male, Spot-crowned Barbet! I chugged the last gulp of coffee and left the mug by the entrance of the kitchen and fell back into full-out birding mode. Moyo joined me and we began tallying new birds left & right on the neatly landscaped grounds just off the deck.
Looking up we saw one, then two, and then a third White Hawk sailing directly over the camp low and joining a flock of vultures with Black, Turkey and even a couple King Vultures! The Barbet had moved on, but in it’s place were amazing White-headed Wrens loudly protesting some unseen nuisance.
Also, taking advantage of the shaded canopy of the tree was a Squirrel Cuckoo and the Sooty-headed Tyrannulet. We continued down the path and found Saphire-throated Hummingbirds & Purple-crowned Fairies feeding on the low flowering bushes. An Orange-crowned Oriole perched up and a Red-rumped Woodpecker bounced between branches above our heads.
There were numerous Cinnamon Becards here with a single, strikingly similar One-colored Becard for direct comparison.
Next there was a male Olivaceous Piculet feeding on small grubs, which showed spectacular golden spotting on its crown. Both of these were new species as was the Wren, Tyrannulet, and Barbet. I could tell that pesky smile was back!
There were also Golden-collared Manakins, Yellow-breasted Flycatchers, and my first Pale-bellied Hermit here! I’d picked up 3 new birds on the drive in and 8 more new ones just walking the grounds for an hour in the heat of the day. Other guests had returned now from their morning walk and lunch was about to be served. As good as the birding was, I wasn’t about to miss this.
As we enjoyed our delicious lunch we still were able to see and hear birds in the trees nearby, the White-tailed Trogon that showed itself was but one notable example. As we’d just finished our desert I heard a distinctive, loud, whistled 3 note call and peered skyward to see the unmistakeable shape of a Black Hawk-Eagle circling past. I called it out so my new birding friends could enjoy the view as well as once again Athena & I enjoyed a long study of this noble bird!
Long tail a large paddle-shaped wings with prominently barred flight feathers, and that call… that marvelously piercing call! Getting a dozen life birds in mere hours is something that every first time visitor to Panama appreciates, but this was my fifth birding trip to Panama and I’d always done very well. I was ecstatic and couldn’t even have hoped for more, the Canopy Camp was definitely worth the trip!
I sauntered back up to my tent and gathered the gear I might need for an evening walk, raincoat, flashlight, field guide, and loaded all in to my pack then I settled into one of the recliners on my private deck with an ice cold glass of fresh fruit juice and enjoyed the view of whatever else the camp had in store for me. An amazing morning at an amazing place and we’d only just begun!