PANAMA - Sept. 2021

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In early 2021 I learned that Sabrewing Nature Tours would be hosting a tour to Panama including a stay at the Canopy Camp at Darién. I should explain three things:

1. Nancy and I are familiar with Sabrewing Nature Tours. We met Rob Ripma (owner and founder of SNT) a number of times at the Biggest Week in American Birding Festival and Rob also works with Diego Quesada on tours to Costa Rica. Rob is an A+ birder, especially in Central and South America.

2. Canopy Family: This organization owns three very well-known eco-lodges in Panama including the Canopy Camp in the Darién province.

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3. I have wanted to visit the Darién region for some time. It is the most remote section of Panama if not all Central America with many endemic and hard to find birds.

So, I signed-up without giving it a second thought.

My tour to Panama began on September 14, 2021.

First overlooked point on my part - this is the height of the Panamanian rainy or “green” season. As it turns out, the rain wasn't a major problem. Panama, like Costa Rica, has had less than normal rainfall this year. It's all relative. We experienced a substantial amount of rain on this trip but it could have been worse. There were 3 days where it did not rain at all, but a few days where it rained for long periods. And the trails were often muddy and slippery.

Accommodations for the entire trip were at the three Canopy Family eco-tourist facilities. The first six nights were at the Canopy Lodge, the next 5 nights at the Canopy Tower and the last 5 nights at the Canopy Camp. I can’t say enough in regards to the Canopy Family organization. They have put their facilities on top of any birder’s destination list.

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The trip included Rob Ripma and Tyler Ficker from Sabrewing Nature Tours, two other SNT clients, and our excellent Canopy Family guide Eliecer Rodríguez Madrid.

Rob Ripma, Carlos Bethancourt, Tyler Ficker

Rob Ripma, Carlos Bethancourt, Tyler Ficker

Eliecer Rodriguez Madrid,  Carlos Bethancourt

Eliecer Rodriguez Madrid, Carlos Bethancourt


CANOPY LODGE    September 14-19, 2021

The Canopy Lodge is located in central Panama near the town of El Valle de Antôn in Coclé province. Accommodations were very comfortable and meals were good.

Canopy Lodge

Canopy Lodge

Our daily routine: breakfast at 5a, enjoy morning birding destinations, return to lodge for lunch at noon, leave for afternoon excursion at 2p, return to lodge around 6p and dinner at 7p.

We birded many mountain trails near the Lodge as well as a number of local roads. It is a great experience to see one bird species after another as I was walking the trails and roads. As a bird photographer it was impossible to keep up with the multitude of species encountered.

Canopy Lodge Room:<br />
Clean, spacious, and comfortable

Canopy Lodge Room:
Clean, spacious, and comfortable

Typical terrain near Canopy Lodge

Typical terrain near Canopy Lodge

One word can describe the bird photography on this trip - Challenging. 90% of the time we were under the rainforest canopy which meant very dark conditions, mostly small birds that never stood still and were rarely in open conditions, and at best only a small window through the thick undergrowth to see the bird. I was shooting often at over 3600 ISO because of such dark conditions. And, as usual, too often the bird was too far away for a reliable shot. Maybe a little frustrating but always fun and a great experience.

Bird Photos from Canopy Lodge



CANOPY TOWER    September 20 - 25

By noon on September 20, we left the Canopy Lodge and headed for the Canopy Tower located very near the Panama Canal, northeast of the town of Gambia. This is my third stay at the Canopy Tower, so you can read descriptions of the Tower on other blogs of this web site. We repeated the same routine as the Canopy Lodge; up at 4:25a, breakfast at 5a, leave for morning excursion at 5:30a, back to the Tower for lunch at noon, leave for second excursion at 1:30p and back to the Tower for dinner at 7p.

We took many birding hikes near and around the Canopy Tower. Again, Eliecer was an incredible guide wherever we went. I couldn’t believe the number of birds Eliecer was able to hear and spot for us every time. One of the best hikes was one we took up and down the road leading to the Tower. Toward the end Eliecer and Rob spotted a swarm of army ants just off the road. Army ants are generally accompanied by many birds following the ants so it was very enjoyable birding.

Photos from Canopy Tower - CLICK below



CANOPY CAMP - DARIÉN   September 25 - 30

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On Saturday, September 25th, we left the Canopy Tower for our transfer to the Canopy Camp in the province of Darién.

The Camp was my main motivation for taking this trip. Darién is the farthest eastern province of Panama. It borders Colombia and is the most remote section of Panama, if not all of Central America.

The Pan-American Highway, Hwy 1, runs through Panama. It is the longest road in the world, running about 19,000 continuous miles from northern Alaska to southern Chile (except for one 66-mile section at the border of Panama and Columbia, the Darién Gap).

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 From Wikipedia:

The Pan-American Highway is interrupted between Panama and Colombia by a 106 km (66 mi) stretch of marshland known as the Darién Gap. The highway terminates at Turbo, Colombia, and Yaviza, Panama. Because of swamps, marshes, and rivers, construction would be very expensive.

Efforts have been made for decades to eliminate the gap in the Pan-American highway but have been controversial. Planning began in 1971 with the help of United States funding, but this was halted in 1974 after concerns raised by environmentalists. Another effort to build the road began in 1992, but by 1994 a United Nations agency reported that the road, and the subsequent development, would cause extensive environmental damage. The Embera-Wounaan and Kuna (indigenous tribes), have also expressed concern that the road could bring about the potential erosion of their cultures.

Me, at the end of the line.<br />
This is where the Pan American Highway ends.

The province of Darién has long been a major hot spot for birders. According to eBird, birders in Darien have recorded 685 species, with Canopy Camp recording 416 species.

All this fed my desire  to go to Darién and do some serious birding and photography. A little more thought would have helped.

The Canopy Camp on first arrival is amazing. The Camp grounds are spectacular. Beautiful gardens, birds everywhere, and the facilities, like all Canopy Family facilities, cater to birders. The rooms are raised permanent tents with individual private bathrooms with showers. Please read the history of Canopy Camp using this link: https://www.canopytower.com/canopy-camp/camp-history/

Upon arrival at the Camp, it took a short time to realize one major problem at Darién; it’s hot and humid. I mean humidity like I didn’t know existed. The heat probably didn’t reach 90 degrees Fahrenheit but the combination of heat and humidity was enough to kill a person. And there was no escape. A fan in the tent helped but it’s like an umbrella in a hurricane. In the field, by 9:00am the heat and humidity became unbearable for me. Not only would my glasses fog but my eyeballs fogged (or maybe it was my brain). I’m surprised my camera equipment kept in running condition but not so much the guy behind the camera. Rain, mud, heat and humidity; but great birding. Really great birding.

We did many spectacular birding hikes. Two of the most reward trips were driving through a rice farm that was thick with an assortment of birds, and our last excursion which was to the San Francisco Reserve where Eliecer was able to hear and call out for great viewing a very rare Wing-banded Antbird.

Bird Album: click image below


Harpy Eagle: Everyone goes to Darién to see the Harpy Eagle, me included. I’m generally not one to go after one bird but this is one amazing bird. It is the largest and most powerful raptor found throughout its range, and among the largest living species of eagles in the world. Adult Harpy Eagles are apex predators at the top of their food chain. Their main prey are tree-dwelling mammals and a majority of their diet consist of sloths and monkeys. The Harpy Eagle’s talons are often compared to the claws of a grizzly bear. It’s one big bird.

But … the Harpy Eagle is a difficult bird to find and access. Darién province is one of the few places in the world where you can find it. Arrangements were made on our last full day at Darién to visit a known active Harpy Eagle’s nest.

To get there from Canopy Camp we drove north-west on HWY 1 for approximately 10 miles, then turned right heading north on an incredibly rugged dirt road for about an hour when we reached a small town on the Rio Chucunaque river. From there we took long dugout canoes upriver for about a half hour to a small native village. It is the inhabitants of this small native village that located the Harpy Eagles nest and they make arrangements for visitors to visit the nest. At the village we mounted horses.

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A couple notes on the horse ride: I’ve never been on a horse before and it’s not something I felt I was missing. It quickly became evident why we were on horses; the trail we were on was very deep in mud. It was a struggle for the horses to get through the mud. And amazingly each horse was led by one of the young guys from the village. So these poor guys had to march through the mud, leading a horse. It took everything I had to hold on and stay in the saddle.

Back to the path to the Harpy Eagle: We rode the horses for about 1 ½ hours along a trail. We dismounted and hiked up a mountain for another 1 hour, when we reached a clearing where they cleverly had put together benches made from a fallen tree nearby. At this point I’m totally exhausted but the Eagle nest was only about 20 yards from the clearing. We could easily see the Harpy Eagle nest and after a few minutes the female Harpy Eagle jumped out of the nest and perched on a large nearby branch. After a number of good views and photos we returned to the clearing and had a small lunch and drinks. And then we had to do it all over again to return to Canopy Camp. hike -> horseback -> canoe -> car -> camp.

Harpe Eagle
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