Thursday, September 12, 2019

Darien Lowlands Clean-up!

Darien, of eastern Panama, is the largest and less-developed province of the country, home of great biodiversity, including tons of endemics and regional specialties found nowhere else in North America.  That is why, if you are doing a Panama (or Central America) Big Year you MUST include several trips to this province.  I covered well the highlands of the province with their hordes of endemics (see field trips posts HERE and HERE), getting some lowlands species as well in the same trips plus other trips with specific targets (like my flash trip to Finca Los Lagos)... but I still needed some lowlands specialties of the province.  So, I contacted Domiciano "Domi" Alveo, of Birding Trips Panama, an experienced bird guide and good friend of mine, to take me to the eastern lowlands in search of those targets.
Because I'm always short of time, we planned a weekend trip leaving Panama City Friday afternoon.  Leaving the city on Friday afternoon is a mess, but somehow we managed it without too much delay.  The 4-hours trip to the town of Metetí was more enjoyable with Domi's company ... we talked about the possibilities that awaited us all the way, and we even had time to spy an Striped Owl on the side of the road.  We got to our hotel at Metetí on time to sleep right away!
Striped Owl
Very early the next day, at first light we were boarding our "piragua" at the town of La Peñita, along the Chucunaque river.  Our destination was the Embera village of Nuevo Vigía, along the Tuquesa river, a tributary of the Chucunaque river.  This community has received visiting birders and naturalists since a while ago and are  well aware of the benefits of the sustainable tourism activities.  It became clearly evident that they know their birds... after all, where can you see a Welcome Sign with Dusky-backed Jacamar on it?
Domi and our boatman on the piragua along the mighty Chucunaque river
"Welcome to the community of Nuevo Vigía"
In fact, the Dusky-backed Jacamar was my main target for the site.  This range-restricted species is only found in eastern Panama and north-western Colombia.  It is quite localized, but usually faith to known locations where it is quite reliable... but you need the local expertise to find them anyway.  A short boat ride took us to a former orchard, now overgrown.  We immediately started to find some eastern Panama specialties, like Capped Heron, Spectacled Parrotlet, Black-tailed Trogon, Double-banded Graytail and Black Oropendola.  Soon Domi located our target: a young male Dusky-backed Jacamar was quietly waiting for its prey to fly-by.  Nice start!  Soon we moved to another locality, this time closer to the village.  The trail took us through secondary forests and degraded areas, to finally reach a swampy area where we looked after Black-collared Hawk without success; however, we got the most amazing views of secretive Bare-crowned Antbirds in the understore.  The pair, but specially the adult male, left us astonished while they confidently stayed in the open, preening and showing off.  Believe me or not, that was my second sight ever of this species and a great addition to my Year List!
Dusky-backed Jacamar
Adult male Bare-crowned Antbird showing its bare crown!
But there were not only avian highlights in Nuevo Vigía.  The open areas and the village itself were exceptionally good for butterflies, including rare and restricted species.  The whites, yellows, sulfurs and patches were exceptionally common, but the diversity was so high that I'm still trying to ID some of them.  My personal highlights were the Glorious Blue-Skipper (Paches loxus), the Zebra Lonwing (Heliconius charithonia) and my long-expected lifer Red Peacock (Anartia amathea) which is an specialty of eastern Panama.
Glorious Blue-Skipper
Zebra Longwing
Red Peacock
Short before midday, we left Nuevo Vigía in order to visit some sites along the Pan-American highway.  The short stops along the road produced more and more eastern Panama specialties, but certainly the highlights were a singing Red-billed Scythebill and a pair of dueting Black-capped Donacobius allowing great views.  Other highlights of these stops along the highway were Yellow-hooded Blackbirds, Large-billed Seed-Finch, Pied Water-Tyrants, Gray-breasted Crake and a mixed flock with rare White-chinned and Spot-fronted Swifts among others (check this eBird checklist).
Red-billed Scythebill
Black-capped Donacobius
Yellow-hooded Blackbird, adult male
Eventually, we reached the town of Yaviza, at the very end of the Pan-American highway.  This town is the gateway to Darien National Park and to hundreds of communities only reachable through piraguas.  We had lunch there and then spend the part of the afternoon looking for some other species.  The usual stakeout for Bicolored Wren (the graveyard) worked well... we saw a family group near its huge nest foraging at all levels and taking dust baths.  They have certainly prospered in the place, the same as the Carib Grackles that were quite common at town.  In fact, we saw more Caribs than Great-tailed Grackles and even saw juveniles and begging immatures all around.
Bicolored Wrens
Carib Grackle, female
It was a successful and long day, but was not over.  A good friend of us, also an expert birding guide resident in Darien, invited us a cup of coffee at his house.  Ismael "Nando" Quiroz (of Tamandua Nature & Photo Travel Panama) is almost a legend in the birding world of Darien and we know each other since long time ago, so paying him and his beautiful family a visit was a must.  Nando was free that weekend and agreed to join us the next day... I still had some targets and he knew some nice spots where we could try for them.  For some reason, I mentioned that I still needed Tropical Screech-Owl for my Year List... Nando knew a nearby spot where it was guaranteed.  Of course, we jumped into the car and started to drive.  Soon, a curious screech-owl was in the spotlight, perched along a live fence bordering pastureland with thousands of fireflies... what a show!
Tropical Screech-Owl
As planned, we met Nando again for breakfast the next day.  We visited several sites, including famous ones like the roads to Lajas Blancas and to El Salto, finding many eastern Panama specialties (and Year birds) like Red-throated Caracara, Barred Puffbird, Orange-crowned Oriole, White-eared Conebill, among others.  But for my main target of the trip, Nando took us to some rice fields by Quebrada Félix.  Of the five species of macaws in Panama, four of them are found in Darien province and, for some reason, one of them have eluded me all these years.  Supposedly common, the Chestnut-fronted Macaw is the smallest of the macaws found in the country.  Probably bad luck or simply short time birding the appropriate habitat explains why I still needed that bird for my Panama list, but I was decided to add it to my lists this year... so was Nando.  Soon, he heard a pair flying across the field and I was finally able to put my binoculars on them.  They were far away... but eventually we got much better views of other individuals (but no better photos).
Chestnut-fronted Macaws
With most of our targets in the bag, and running out of time, we said good-bye to Nando and started our journey back to Panama City.  Birding can not be easier when you have two excellent guides by your side.  Thanks guys for the GREAT weekend.  I recommend both for them if you want to visit Darien province of eastern Panama..., please don't hesitate to contact them!
Great White Longtail (Urbanus chalco) at Nando's backyard!