El Darien... the final frontier. I have been a more or less active birder since 15 years ago in Panama, and the biggest gap on my life list still is those birds only ocurring in the Darien lowlands (eastern Panama). Some years ago, I got interesting highland birds in Chucanti (barely western Darien) and spent few days in La Palma, which is the Darien's capital, watching a Harpy Eagle nest and Black Oropendolas, but nothing else (okay, i also got there my life -and only- Bicolored Hawk). That's why I was so excited by this trip. El Real is located in eastern Darien and is one of the birding hotspot of the province. Of course is not like Cana, on the Pirre range, but you can find lots of birds, with South America affinities, that are not present in central Panama. In fact, the latest additions to the panamenian avifauna have been sighted in this site (Large-billed Seed-Finch and Yellow-hooded Blackbird).
Last weekend, I joined 10 others members of the Panama Audubon Society in a journey to the heart of the Darien province, searching for everything what has to offer. The first stop in the route (still in Panama province) was to watch a pair of isabellinus American Kestrels. Then, at the Río Mono bridge we heard a Barred Puffbird and saw a soaring Hook-billed Kite. From there we took the improved Panamerican highway to Yaviza, where it ends. Yaviza is a busy town in the shores of the Chucunaque river. It's a gate to many other communities in eastern Darien, including El Real. We headed for El Real under a heavy rainfall. During the only chance that mother nature gave us, I spotted a big raptor perched on a branch... with a white head... an adult Black-collared Hawk!!!! After dipping on it in Río Mono, I almost materialize it with all my desire of seeing it!!! My first lifer of the trip and we haven't even arrived to El Real yet! Of course we saw other common birds: Common Black-Hawk, Cocoi Heron, White and Slaty-tailed Trogons, Ringed, Green and Amazon Kingfishers, Smooth-billed and Greater Anis and so on... the bird activity was good until we were hit again by the storm.
After navigating the Chucunaque, Tuira and Pirre rivers, we arrived to El Real trough the Uroseca river. Because of the low tide, this was a little creek by the moment we tried to land, making it a hard task. Finally we did it, and established ourselves in the hotel El Nazareno (only one in town). Basic accommodations and no running water, but what else you expect in this remote corner of the country.
Soon we were out searching for any feathered creature we can. The very first bird spotted at the airstrip was an adult male Yellow-hooded Blackbird!!! in the far end of a flooded field. It proved to be the only one for all the trip. Then, at the airstrip itself, we saw at least two adult males Large-billed Seed-Finches (my second lifer of the day), one of them singing. Some other noteworthy sightings were the Plain-breasted Ground-Doves all over the place (probably first report for the Darien province), a Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture (second report for the Darien province), Bran-colored Flycatcher and Gray-breasted Crakes heard. Then we moved to the cemetery road (aka Mercadeo road) finding a nice mixed flock that included Cinnamon and White-winged Becards, Orange-crowned Oriole, Spot-crowned Barbet, Yellow-margined Flycatcher, Streak-headed Woodcreeper and so on... More experienced birders in the group recognized the chattering calls of a group of Spectacled Parrotlets and we soon were watching these tiny birds feeding on a Cecropia tree (my third lifer of the day). While everyone was watching the parrotlets, a little bird behind us caught my attention. It was an adult male Lesser Goldfinch that disappeared too quickly (maybe first report for the Darien province). After a nice birding afternoon, we headed to Doña Lola's restaurant to have dinner while hearing "la escandalosa" - a Limpkin - and then back to our hotel in order to have some deserved rest.
Lifers of day one: 3 plus a Panama life bird!
Part II here.