Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Falcon misfortune

This morning I was up before dawn and headed out to the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center to enjoy the morning birds from the canopy tower there.  However, a mid-morning rain sent me home a little early than planned, where I started to settle in for the day.  

Shortly after arriving at home, I got a phone call from my housemate, who was out for a walk in Gamboa.  He said that he just witnessed a falcon hit a window at one of the houses in town and asked if I could come help.  I packed up a towel and headed out to see if I could be of any help.  I was expecting a Bat Falcon (common in town) or other raptor, but when I got there I was surprised to see a beautiful white-phase Collared Forest-Falcon sitting on the ground.  It had hit a large window, rather hard, and had been stunned on the ground.  After about 10 minutes, just before I got there, it was able to stand up on its feet.  It was still on the ground, standing, when I arrived.  It seemed a little shaken up but alert, and I figured if I approached it, it would fly.  It didn't appear to have any obvious physical injuries, and that was apparent when it flew a few minutes later.  It glazed off another window on the house next door (unfortunately these big windows show a good reflection of the surrounding forest), and landed in a tree in the back yard.  It still seemed shocked but ok, and I was happy to see it fly fine and land properly.  Still a little concerned, I decided to stick around for a little while and watch it, to see if it would carry on into the forest.  It didn't, and I decided to head home, and plan on checking on it later. 
Collared Forest-Falcon
Collared Forest-Falcon in Gamboa
The Collared Forest-Falcon, Micrastur semitorquatus, is a large forest raptor of the tropical forests of Central and South America, and largest of all the forest-falcons.  It has a slim body with long legs and tail, and measures approximately 50 cm in length, with a wingspan up to 80 cm.  It comes in three colour morphs - white (pale), buff and dark.  The pale and buff morphs show a distinct collar that wraps around the sides of its head, with a dark crescent on the side of the head, and contrasting with its dark brown or black plumage on head, wings, back and tail.  It is more commonly heard than seen, often calling at dawn and dusk, low-pitched 'aw" calls.  It hunts small mammals including squirrels and other rodents, and birds in the forest understory.  In Panama, this species is considered uncommon on both slopes, is found in lowland forest up to an elevation of almost 2000 m.  If in Panama or other forests in tropical America, keep your eyes and ears open for this beautiful bird!

~ Jenn       

Sunday, February 3, 2013

El Real, Darien

Long-tailed Tyrant
Long-tailed Tyrant, Colonia colona, at nest
I have to admit, I was sad to leave Rancho Frio a little earlier than expected, it was such a special place!  But that passed as we arrived at Pirre Uno and the road that would take us back to El Real.  Before even getting in the truck, we spotted a pair of nesting Long-tailed Tyrants.  These cavity-nesting flycatchers were perched outside of their nest hole on a thin dead trunk.  Ok, I was feeling better about this already.  One bird I hadn't seen yet that I was really hoping for was the Black Oropendola.  This large icterid is similar in appearance to the Montezuma Oropendola of Costa Rica and western Panama, and is rather distinguishable from the Crested Oropendola which is also found commonly in this area.  As we made our way back to El Real in the open back of the pick-up truck (great for birding), I saw a large black bird fly over the road ahead.  Quickly getting my binoculars on it I saw its big blue cheek patch and realized yes, this is our Black Oropendola!  There's just something about these birds, their social community structure, their subtle yet striking plumage and rather outrageous calls, I can't help but love oropendolas! 

Great Potoo
Can you find the Potoo??
As we arrived in El Real, Isaac spotted a well-hidden Great Potoo on a pale branch beside the road.  It is amazing how well these birds can camouflage while sitting overly exposed on an open limb!  We stopped at a good spot to see a couple more target species, the tiny Spectacled Parrotlet and Rufous-tailed Jacamar.  Within minutes, Isaac had found us both, very impressive indeed!  We carried on through El Real, passing the primitive airstrip and eventually making it to our overnight destination.  There are apparently a couple hotel/hostels in El Real, but we had a better option.  Jose has connections in El Real through his wife, Yissel, who's family is from El Real.  Everyone was so friendly and I was convinced that anyone would have invited us to stay the night in this little jungle town.  We stayed with a lovely woman whom Jose knew - his wife's uncle's mother (how's that for connections!).  She seemed prepared for our arrival as if she knew we were coming back a day early, as was waiting for us.  She insisted on making us a lovely dinner and breakfast the next morning as well.  The hospitality I have experienced through travels in Latin America has been incredible, and again, I felt very welcome here.  

Cerro Pirre
Cerro Pirre in the distance

El Real Airstrip
El Real Airstrip
That evening, we met again with Isaac and went on a walk through the town to look for night life (animals, not parties, although El Real is known for its fiestas and was already preparing for upcoming carnaval festivities this weekend!).  Our night walk turned up a number of Common Pauraques, a Tropical Screech-Owl, Common Potoo eyeshine in the distance near the airstrip and a Common Opossum.  There were also large insectivorous bats flying around light posts, their size rather striking and I've been told they were probably Eumops spp. (Molossidae - the mastiff or bonneted bats - cool!).  

Rio Chucunaque Sunrise
Sunrise in the Darien
Tired from another long day, I went to bed early and slept very well in a comfortable bed in Ana Mu's house.  The next morning, we met Isaac at 6:30 in the plaza to start our journey back to Panama City.  The piragua ride on the river was very peaceful at this time in the morning, as we watched the sun rise over the forest canopy.  I spent most of my time snapping photos of the scenery.  Before I knew it we were back in Yaviza, our gateway to the Darien, this time to say adios to this incredible part of Panama.  After checking in with SENAFRONT in Yaviza to let them know I was departing the area, we grabbed a direct bus to Panama City, said our good byes to Isaac, and headed home.  

My experience in the Darien was memorable to say the least.  I already cannot wait to go back! Thanks to Jose Perez and Isaac Pizarro for a great experience in the wilds of the Darien! 

~ Jenn   

Birding Darien National Park and Cerro Pirre

Rancho Frio
Rancho Frio/Pirre Station, Darien National Park
After a good sleep at Rancho Frio and delicious breakfast of patacones and tuna, we headed out on a trail from the station.  Isaac wanted to take us up as far as we could go on Cerro Pirre, a wide-sweeping mountain in far eastern Panama, bordering Colombia.  Near the summit, you can encounter some of Panama's endemic species found only in this area, including Pirre Warbler and Pirre Bush-Tanager.  Rancho Frio station sits at about 100 metres above sea level, and the initial plan was to hike up close to the summit, near 1400 metres.  So we started out on our upward climb.  It was quite light in the clearing of the station but as soon as we entered the forest, it was still dark, as the morning light was not yet coming through the dense canopy.  The first bird we encountered, only 30 metres into the trail, was a beautiful, large Spectacled Owl perched in perfect view not far off the trail.  Next, the call of a Black-crowned Antpitta caught our attention and was easily coaxed out on the trail.  I couldn't help but laugh as I watched my this life bird bounce across the wide trail!  

Cerro Pirre
Beautiful view from the foothills of Cerro Pirre, Darien National Park
The forest was full of birds singing - for the first part of our hike we stopped for great views of Streak-chested Antpitta, Great Curassow, Golden-crowned Manakin, Plumbeous Pigeon, and to try to see the Sirystes calling above us, but with no success.  We carried on our way, and the trail began to get more and more inclined upward.  After hiking uphill for quite some time, we made it to 430 metres where we had a beautiful view of the valley to one side of the ridge - as we grabbed a drink of water, a small group of Red-and-green Macaws flew by in the distance.  I felt very privileged to be in this special place, where large macaws and rare wildlife still are found.  Above our heads, a Yellow-eared Toucanet was calling and we got great looks of this beautiful bird.  We carried on up the ridge, and not too much further we passed through an area of tangled lianas, just before coming to a clearing.  We stopped here once again for spectacular views of the valley to the other side.  We were up in the foothills of Cerro Pirre now, and the air was cooler and the humidity had decreased.  Stunning Lemon-spectacled Tanagers and a Collared Forest-Falcon just metres away were some of the highlights in this area.  Jose recognized the call of a Barred Puffbird, a rare and exciting species to see in Panama, and not long after hearing its call Isaac found it sitting through a gap in the lianas... wow!  What a bird! 
Barred Puffbird
Barred Puffbird, Nystalus radiatus
Atelopus limosus
Limosa Harlequin Frog, Atelopus limosus
 We decided to slow down our hiking pace as we were seeing some great birds.  We made it up to the camp site at 650 metres above sea level by noon.  Now not heading all the way up, we could take our time and enjoy the birds.  We took a side trail down to a beautiful stream to look for a Sharp-tailed Streamcreeper, but with no success after searching for some time.  Instead we were rewarded with great views of Tufted Flycatcher and Tawny-throated Leaftosser.

We worked our way back down to the station, finally arriving around 5:00 pm.  Our legs hurt from climbing up and down, but it was definitely worth it!  On the way down we picked up more nice species including Olive-backed Quail-Dove, Red-throated Caracara and Golden-crowned Spadebill.  

The next morning we headed out along another trail, again heading up another ridge in the foothills of Cerro Pirre.  The bird activity today was surprisingly quiet, the highlight of the morning was a Great Green Macaw sitting in a distant tree along the river.  Unfortunately we encountered ticks, lots of them, of which are still causing discomfort days later!  

That afternoon we thought through our plans and decided it would be good to make our way back to El Real for the night, since the journey back is a long one and we wanted to make it back to Panama City in good time on our final day.  So we packed up our gear and hiked back out to Pirre Uno, where we met with a truck.  Along the way, I couldn't help but want to see that Harpy Eagle again, and after some searching we found it perched high up in the canopy of the tree.  Going around the back of the tree to search for the bird allowed for great views of the nest, as well!  Another nice bird along the way was an immature Agami Heron which flushed out of the riverside vegetation, and we got great looks of this super cool bird! 

Harpy Eagle nest
Harpy Eagle nest in a Cuipo Tree
 We continued and eventually made it to the road where we met the truck to take us back to El Real.  We had a fantastic time in Darien National Park, but our trip was not over yet.  The birding around El Real itself is great, so more to come about that!  

Saludos de Panama! 
~ Jenn 


The Darien: Our Arrival

Rio Chucunaque
Rio Chucunaque, Darien
Panama is an amazing country for naturalists, conservationists and wildlife enthusiasts alike; it has over 2.6 million hectares of land protected under the National System of Protected Areas, over 34% of its total land mass, comprised of 65 officially designated protected areas.  The largest by far, and one of the largest National Parks in Central America, is Darien National Park.  Located in the Darien Province in eastern Panama and bordering Colombia, it covered 579 000 hectares of lowland, foothill and highland tropical forests, including large expanses of primary forest, and is home to some very majestic wildlife, flora and fauna alike, including Jaguar, Harpy Eagle, Baird's Tapir and some of the largest Ceiba and Cuipo trees I have ever seen!  For years I have been dreaming about visiting this incredible place, and finally my dreams came true!  My good friend and naturalist guide, Jose Perez, invited me to join him in a trip to the Darien, I couldn't pass it up!

So last Sunday night, we met at the gran terminal in Panama City and boarded a bus to the Darien.  When the first bus was loading up at 2:30 am to make the 7-hour journey to Yaviza, the end of the road here in Panama (as no roads pass through the "Darien Gap" into Colombia), we were still dozing in the terminal lounge.  When we realized this was the bus we wanted to be on, we grabbed our gear and waited in line.  The little coaster buses hold maybe 20-25 people and we just missed the cut.  The bus filled and we were the next in line.  Promptly, a 2nd bus pulled up and we were the first ones in.  In no time, we were on our way to the Darien!

Everything happens for a reason; because we were snoozing in the terminal, we missed the first bus.  That first bus, however, did not make it to the Darien.  Somewhere along the way, in the wee hours of the morning, that first bus had an accident with a rather large cow on the Panamerican Highway, a few hours into its journey.  I believe everyone was alright thank goodness, other than being a little shaken up, but from the photos I saw taken by the bus attendant on our bus, it was quite smashed up on the front and side.  Must have been a big cow!  I'm glad everyone was alright, except for the cow.  

Yaviza port
Port in Yaviza along the Rio Chucunaque, Darien
Darien National Park is not an easy place to visit.  Traveling there takes a good deal of time, if you want to save some money.  You can fly into El Real from Panama City, but we took the more 'adventurous' (or rather, economical) route by taking the bus.  The bus will go as far as Yaviza, and we actually changed buses in Meteti along the way, where the road worsens from there to Yaviza.  Upon arrival in Yaviza, we met our guide, Isaac Pizarro, at the boat docks.  After doing some running around in Yaviza, we boarded a piragua, a long dugout canoe used to navigate the rivers through the Darien.  We traveled for approximately an hour by boat to the town of El Real.  We spent approximately an hour in El Real, walked around the town, and bought some water and food for the next few days.  What a beautiful place!  From there we were transferred in a pick-up truck to Pirre Uno, which took approximately 40 minutes.  There we bought plantain and a live chicken to take with us to the station.  Then we hiked for 2 hours, with our gear and food, to Pirre Station, also known as Rancho Frio.  Our journey from Panama City to Rancho Frio took 15 hours total but we were happy and excited to make it there!
Plaza en El Real
The other difficult part about traveling to the Darien, anywhere in the Darien, is that you need permission from SENAFRONT, Servicio Nacional de Fronteras (National Border Service).  Knowing this, Jose acquired the permission in Panama City a week prior to our trip.  On route, we were stopped at various SENAFRONT check points, in Aguas Frias, Meteti, then needed to visit the offices in Yaviza and El Real to get all checked in.  Even after checking in at El Real, the officers drove behind us on our way to Pirre Uno to confirm, I suppose.  What an experience!  It was also necessary to visit all those check points again on the way out.  

Young Harpy Eagle
Young Harpy Eagle, Harpia harpyia, Darien National Park
The highlight of the day by far, was during our fast hike into Rancho Frio.  We were excited and tired at the same time, but we continued on to make it to the station before dark.  It this time I was being powered by the weight on my back and just the urge to get to our final destination, when Isaac said "llegamos al aguila arpia".  We have arrived at the Harpy Eagle nest!  We put our packs down and started scanning the branches of the gigantic Cuipo tree to the right of the trail.  In moments we found it, the year-old chick, perched in the open on a large branch of the crown of the tree.  My heart skipped a beat as I watched this beautiful pale young Harpy Eagle stare back down at me from 25 metres up in the canopy.  Incredible!  We watched the bird, took photos & video and simply enjoyed the moment.  After tracking these magnificent eagles for 7 months here in Soberania National Park years ago, seeing one truly in the wild for the first time was a magical experience! 
Made it to Rancho Frio!

We carried on for 30 minutes more and arrived at Rancho Frio, finally!  It was a long day but a great one, and we couldn't wait to start exploring the foothills of Cerro Pirre.  We settled in, set up the tent, ate some dinner and fell asleep to the calls of Crested and Spectacled Owls in the surrounding dense forests.  

Sorry for a rather lengthly account, but there's more to come from the Darien! 

~ Jenn