Monday, September 30, 2013

I climbed Pirre and survived!

My previous post was an introduction to my recent trip to Darien National Park in eastern Panama.  My main objective was to hike with a guide to the highlands of the Pirre range behind the station.  This is not an easy task, specially if you plan the craziest one-day trip ever, as I did.  There is a reason for such madness.  Since the closure of the Cana field station, and hence the tour to the summit camp in the Alturas de Nique range, the only reachable site to find the Pirre range endemics is, in fact, the actual Cerro Pirre, a forested massif with its highest point at 1569 meters above sea level... exactly the point I was willing to reach.
Cerro Pirre, as seen from the first lookout at 650 meters above sea level
There were some logistic issues that I needed to solve first, like ANAM and SENAFRONT permits to visit the area.  Fortunately, my good friend Guido Berguido (of Advantage Tours) took care of that, so I smoothly found my way to Pirre Station, passing through the towns of Yaviza, El Real and Pirre 1, where Isaac Pizarro, my local guide, was waiting for me.  He was busy attending a group of biologists, but arranged another local guide, Tilson Contreras, to accompany me to Cerro Pirre.  We left the station in the dark, hearing Vermiculated Screech and Spectacled Owls in the way.  We followed a trail knows as "El Estrangulador", which means "The Strangler"and oh boy, what an appropriate name!  The first few kilometers consist of a constant, but strenuous uphill hike on muddy ground, taking you from 60 to 650 meters above sea level and passing through tall primary forest and two lookouts with exceptionally views of the surroundings forests to the southeast (first lookout) and to the west (second lookout).
First lookout.  Colombia in the background!
This first part of the trail is covered by the locals in two hours, when they reach a camping site known as Rancho Plástico.  There is an interesting story about this name.  Originally, the site was known as Rancho Frío, well beyond the actual site of the ANAM´s Pirre Station that is known as Rancho Frío today.  The actual Rancho Plástico is a still higher camp in the ridge top, called that way because of the plastic tarps used by scientist many years ago for shelter against the rain.  A little bit confusing eh?  The names seem to have migrated downhill!
"Rancho Plástico"
Well, it took me 4 painful hours to get to Rancho Plástico!  At first I tried to carry my own supplies, water and camera gear... soon Tilson was carrying all that stuff and I still was suffering from the terrible march... only the dream of Pirre endemics kept me up... but the worse part was yet to come.  Beyond Rancho Plástico, the trail climbs steeply... covering an altitudinal range of 600+ meters in little more than one kilometer!  In fact, I needed ALL my limbs and nails to climb the last meters to the top, an stretch of the trail known as "La Ensuciapecho" (the one that mess your chest).  By the way, this second part of the trail took me 3 miserable hours to accomplish!
Me, faking a smile at "La Ensuciapecho"
Probably you're thinking at this point "C'mon, stop complaining and tell us about the birds".  When I reached the top, I was so tired that, instead of walking along the ridge, I decided to sit and wait for the mixed flocks... my shaking hands were useless to hold my lens focused in canopy dwellers, so I just grabbed my binoculars for a while... thanks God the summit was a GREAT spot!  Soon, a flock of Pirre Bush-Tanagers mixed with a Lineated Foliage-Gleaner was above my head (yes, I was lying on my back)... you'll have to trust me, the next photo shows the underparts of one of those Pirre Bush-Tanagers.
Of the "Pirre" birds (Pirre Hummingbird, Bush-Tanager and Warbler), the bush-tanager is the only one still endemic to Panama, since the other two have been recorded in the Colombian side of the border. Then, a mixed flock of Black-and-Yellow Tanagers and Orange-bellied Euphonias included a Green-naped Tanager, the only other national endemic remaining.  Other Pirre range endemic recorded was several Pirre Hummingbirds, all females. I dip on the warbler... an expected one since that species is not that common according to Isaac.  No photos of those birds... but at least I got a photo of a Panama near-endemic... a Varied Solitaire.  Its ethereal song fills the air of the montane forest.
I also saw more widespread species that, in Panama, are only readily found in these mountains, like Sooty-headed Wren, Tooth-billed Hummingbird and fascinating views of a singing Choco Tapaculo!  And even more widespread species are relatively common and easier to see up there, like Crested Guan, Red-and-green Macaws, Plain Antvireo, White-throated Spadebill, Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch and Slate-throated Whitestart.
I only spend three hours in the summit, and then started the return... which was faster, but a little bit scarier.  Around Rancho Plástico we were able to watch more birds, like my life Lemon-spectacled Tanagers, Russet Antshrike, Sharpbill, Wing-banded Antbird and a Crested Guan.
We also saw several mammals species, like agouties, monkeys (three species in fact) and several Pygmy-Squirrels that I'm still trying to ID (this particular individual was seen at 700 meters above sea level and and exhibited a white dot behind the ears).
After 4 hours, we reached the Pirre station at dark... barely.  I was exhausted, but happy... with many life birds in the bag and a great tale to tell.  According to Isaac, very FEW birders have managed to reach the top, all I know are true athletes (not like me for sure), so I like to think that I now belong to a select group of brave masochistic able to do anything for endemic birds!


  1. A great life story. You can trade on that for many years to come! Thanks.

  2. After reading the whole thing I got sweat in my forehead! Great account of your trip! I promise Pearl Islands will not be this difficult!!!