Birding in The Darién Province of Panamá

During the last week of April, I took a trip to The Darién – the most Eastern province of Panama bordering Columbia, to go birding. I went with Euclides Campos, who is one of the best known extreme birders of Panama. He’s been birding in Panama for decades. He had invited me to go on a trip with him, because I wanted to learn more about the birds of this region of Panama. But we were waiting for the right opportunity, one where there were not too many people yet he could use my assistance carrying gear.

It finally presented itself when a single gentleman from the United States booked a tour to go deep into the mountains of The Darién. This man is an avid birder who was looking for a few specific species available to be seen only in this small area of Central America. He had been a serious birder for his entire life, who was currently focused on seeing all the birds in Central and North America. He only had a few left on his list. This trip was his third or fourth trip to Panama searching for the rarest species.

We spent three days in the rainforest of Cerro Pirre, hiking up a mountain, trying to find the Slender-billed Kite (Helicolestes hamatus) and the Choco Tinamou (Crypturellus kerriae). These two birds are some of the most difficult to find anywhere in the world. The Choco Tinamou lives only on the border of Panama and Columbia.

Unfortunately, we saw only the tail of the Choco Tinamou, though we heard him very close to us several times. We saw not even a feather of the Slender-billed kite.

…And that’s the moral of birding. If at first you don’t succeed, you must try, try again. As soon as the trip finished, the guest arranged for another week birding in Panama with Euclides to try again to see these birds.

Why Look for Birds During A Certain Time of Year?

You might be wondering why, when this birder could not find the species on his list, he made a reservation to return an entire year later to try again. Partly, it could be that he is scheduling around work and his own finances. But an important aspect of birding in Panama (and all of Central America) is knowing when to look.

The best time to search for most species is at the end of the dry season (December to April) / beginning of rainy season (May to November). The reason is because this is the breeding season for most of the species. Because when the rain starts, more trees begin to flower, producing more fruits. Consequently, more food becomes available. And since food is bountiful, the birds need less time to focus on gathering food and can focus instead on reproduction. The females are also fortified nutritionally and are better able to prepare their bodies for reproduction.
About The Darién

I had been to The Darién once before, but not as deep into the rain forest as I went this time. For most people, when you say you’re going there, it sounds like it’s risky because of the reputation of the area for dangerous activity. But, if you go with the right people who know the area, there’s nothing to worry about. So we have to eliminate that worry people have.

That’s why I strongly recommend going with a guide. Although there are not many of them, the few available are experts in their field. Also, hiking to see the rarest species is not something you can do in one day. It requires a 3-4 day trip, as it takes just one day to get deep into the forest. An expedition like this takes planning and organization. In addition, ANAM requires permission to go into these areas, which your guide will know how to acquire. But they take time, and so you must make a reservation that allows time for this permission to be obtained.

What I can tell you about The Darién versus my home in the Chiriquí Province is that the forest is different. More tropical in nature. The heat is really hot in the lowlands, much hotter than even in David or the coastal areas of Western Panama – even hotter than Panama City. You will be sweating no matter whether your are only standing still. The heat makes the trip difficult because you are walking long distances, loaded down with supplies. But once you get into the mountains, it’s cool like Boquete again.

For me, this trip to The Darién was really successful because I saw many different species from that area that I have never seen before – so I really increased my life list. Among them were the Crested Eagle (Morphnus guianensis) , Sharp-tailed Streamcreeper (Lochmias nematura) , Green Manakin (Xenopipo holochlora), and Wing-banded Antbird (Myrmornis torquata) .

Global Birding Day 2015

Bare-shanked Screech Owl by Jason Lara

Pictured above: Bare-shanked Screech Owl, seen just after midnight on Volcan Barú

On May 9, 2015, I participated in the Global Big Day sponsored by ebird, in an effort to see as many species as possible in one day.

That day we traveled 384 km from Volcan Barú to the Caribbean side of Panamá, the Continental Divide and the Pacific side as well, then back to the Quetzal Trail in the Chiriquí Highlands, trying to get the highest number of species of birds in Panamá. Our goal was to include as many different microclimates as possible to increase the number of birds we would see.

There were seven of us in the group, crazy birders: Euclides Campos, Cesar Caballero, Raul Velazquez, Rafael Gutierrez, Cesar Gonzales, Mr. Henry Samudio and my self, Jason Lara.

We started at midnight on Volcan Barú at 2,300 meters looking for owls, specifically the Costa Rican Pygmy Owl, Bare-shanked Screech Owl and big hopes to see the Unspotted Saw-whet Owl but this last hope was not to be. This is the only place in the country to see these owls. We spent about 2.5 hours there, then we drove through Caldera trying to see more birds on the way. We drove slowly looking for owls, night hawks, but didn’t see that many.

We arrived in Chiriquí Grande, on the Caribbean side, around 6 am, travelling slowly because it was very cloudy through the Continental Divide. We got a quick breakfast at a Chinese restaurant, which was empanadas, coffee and Panamanaian tortillas, then we to the road of the two tanks where lakes and waterways are, spending another 2.5 hours identifying species. We saw lots of waterbirds. The Green Ibis, which is not common. He was the bird that made our morning. And we saw a few new species none of us had seen before.

Then, we drove back to the Continental Divide, stopping at Willy Mazu area, seeing another 60 species to increase our list for the day to 120-140 at that point. We decided to continue because we knew there were many more species to see. A bit sleepy, we stopped at a local restaurant to get more coffee and Coca-a-Cola. Luckily, we saw a crimson-colored tanager at the restaurant, which got us excited again about the day.

We continued to the División, but were disappointed by the weather, which was cloudy and rainy. We had big expectations for this area, but no birds were out due to the weather. We moved on to the checkpoint near Bocas del Toro – for more coffee and empanadas, having made it to lunch time. I was driving, getting tired, but we went all the way down to the Lowlands when somebody mentioned a short trail around the mini-canyon area, a popular swimming place. We stopped there for about an hour, adding some good species to our list, if not a large number. We saw the Pale-eyed Pygmie Tyrant and some others.

We continued closer to the ocean. When we got to the beach we spotted many shore birds, spending another hour there. It was very hot, and we are used the highland weather, so we didn’t stay long. On the way home we found Scarlet Macaws, which got us excited again, despite how tired we were. Many of the group were already sleeping in the back of the car, but the macaws lifted our spirits and we had yet to bird in our backyard.

I lifted moral and took us all to the Quetzal Trail in Boquete. At this point it was about 5:30 pm. We saw another 42 or 43 species there in 45 minutes, passing 200 total for the day for a total of 218 species in 18 hours (midnight to 6:30 pm). As far as you know, our group saw the most areas, covered the longest distance, looked for the longest time and saw the most species of anyone in Panamá.

We were so happy, so tired, we went home – successful participants of Global Birding Day 2015.