Monday, 20 January 2020

Panama...the end of the road

After a good night's rest, we spend the morning filming around the Canopy Camp. This oasis in the jungle is one of the best birding spots in Panama and we have plenty to keep us busy. I found this stunning male Golden-headed Manakin, it had me lost for words. There's something about birds that are basically black with a splash of colour that I really like, whether its yellow-headed blackbird, purple-throated fruitcrow or this little ball of joy...

Golden-headed Manakin, male

Golden-headed Manakin

Golden-headed Manakin

Golden-headed Manakin
This Black Hawk Eagle stayed around camp for most of the time we were there. It was most often picked up by it's call but I managed to get a back-lit shot of it.

Black Hawk Eagle

The starling-sized Ruddy Ground-dove is very common around the camp.

Ruddy Ground Dove
 As are the much larger White-tailed Doves.

White-tipped Dove

Hummingbirds became the main focus as we wanted to try and film some of the many species that visit the garden. Some come to the hummingbird feeders while others are strictly flower visitors. Verbena is the flower of choice, they just love it. Waiting in front of a patch of this purple flowered shrub is always productive.

White-vented Plumleteer - very difficult to photograph!

White-vented Plumleteer
Blue-chested Hummingbird - only visited verbena

Blue-chested Hummingbird

A Long-billed Starthroat brightened a rainy start
Another Blue-chested Hummingbird

Blue-chested Hummingbird
Filming over for the morning, by 1 pm we'd had lunch, packed the equipment and were heading back to an indigenous village further into the Darien Gap that we'd visited in May 2019, Pijibasal.

To reach Pijibasal you have to drive to Yaviza, the last town on the Pan-American Highway. Yaviza really is the end of the road. To go further into the Darien you have to take a boat along the Chucunaque river. It's a 45 minute boat journey to meet a 4x4 and another 40 minutes along a very rough dirt track before we reach the village. The Embera people who live here are very welcoming and it's great to see them again. The children flock around, especially when the drone goes up and they get to see their home from a never-before seen perspective.

Cocoi Heron

I have to rely on VLOS to fly the drone
as I can no longer see the monitor!

The 4x4 attracts one or two followers too...

The Embera, one of seven indigenous groups in Panama.
They inhabit The Darien and into Colombia
The footage we obtain is enough to finish where we left off back in May and by the time we leave it's getting dark. It's a rush against time as the local army outpost back by the river, can allow or deny you the right to travel as darkness approaches. This is partly for security reasons (it's possible you could bump into drug runners using the river at night - or be mistaken for them!) but mostly for your own safety as there can be submerged logs and trees in the river, which would easily sink the boat.  We are very lucky and are granted permission to leave but it's a longer, slower journey in the dark and by the time we reach Yaviza, it's completely dark - we're glad to be back at the dock.

Pinogana, as we get on the boat the light is fading fast

The Chucanaque River

Sunday, 12 January 2020 the Darien Gap

After taking the first flight of the day from Bocas back to Panama City, we met up with with our old friend Carlos Bethancourt, head guide at the Canopy Family.  Carlos would accompany us for the remainder of the trip and was driving us to their base in the Darien, Canopy Camp.

We broke the 5-hour journey at the Avicar restaurant in Torti - undoubtedly one of the best places to see up to ten species of hummingbirds! We didn't see ten but we had a good selection of hummers and other birds in the garden.

Snowy-bellied Hummingbird, male

Snowy-bellied Hummingbird, male
When their throat catches the sun...amazing!
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird

Scaly-breasted Hummingbird

Sapphire-throated Hummingbird

Sapphire-throated Hummingbird
Black-throated Mango, female

Black-throated Mango, male

Black-throated Mango, female
Long-billed Starthroat, male

Some of the other visitors to the bird table weren't too shabby either...

Blue Dacnis, male - what a colour!

Baltimore Oriole
After an hour watching the hummingbirds, we continued on our way to the Darien. We'd visited here in May for the Harpy Eagles but I hadn't expected to be returning quite so soon. The Darien has a bad reputation. It's a 50 mile wide, almost impenetrable, break in the Pan-American Highway separating Panama from Colombia. The Colombian side certainly has more problems - for a start it's patrolled by FARC, The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (People's Army). Recognised as a terrorist organisation by the Colombian Government, they've certainly employed many unconventional practises in their time including (but not limited to), drug smuggling, kidnapping and murder of civilians. FARC aren't immediately active on the Panama side but there's no way of knowing how far you have to travel into 'The Gap' before running into them!

But I should stress, it's as safe as it can be in Panama and we never experienced ANY problems at all. Crossing The Gap is just not recommended and would be a foolhardy exercise!

But we wouldn't be heading deeper into the region for a couple more days. For the time being we could relax and get a good night's sleep at the wonderful Canopy Camp.

Wednesday, 8 January 2020

Panama...Frogs and Manatees

"The Galapagos of Central America". A grand title for the Bocas del Toro region but well deserved. The diversity among the different islands is staggering. Birds like White-collard Seedeater vary from island to island, on some they have the regular white collar, on others the collar has almost disappeared. But it's the amphibians, and frogs in particular, that have the most incredible variation. Strawberry Poison Frog, Oophaga pumilio, is found on all of the larger islands and each island has its own unique colour variety found nowhere else in the world! There was bright orange, green and yellow with black spots, orange with black spots and my favourite, cobalt blue.

Strawberry Poison Frog, Bocas del Toro

Strawberry Poison Frog, blue morph

These stunning jewels are no bigger than your thumb nail.
In stark contrast, this Savage's Foam Frog, Leptodactylus savagei, is a giant around 6 inches from snout to vent!

Savage's Foam Frog
The following day it was time for a trip off the island. A lengthy boat trip to Almirante followed by an hour on the road took us up towards the border with Costa Rica. Banana plantations lined the last part of the route until we eventually reached our destination. Another 40 minute boat journey ensues as we head in search of manatees. We are joined by a group of VIPs who are involved with the conservation project and who have kindly allowed us access to the feeding station, a jetty and viewing platform set in the mangroves along the edge of the river.



Almirante - waterside homes.

Jim, Mike and Nigel with VIPs behind

Mangroves around the viewing platform
We were assured they would come and after an hour's wait, they did. Three turned up to feed on bunches of banana leaves suspended above the water. It was surreal to see these giant animals loom out of the murky, tannin-stained waters.

Manatee, feeding on banana leaves

They are bizarre animals, one of the highlights of the trip.
Green Heron, sharing the Mangroves with us.
Our last morning at Tranquilo Bay arrived and even as we finished our last shots around the grounds for the film, there were surprises to be had. One of the guides waved us over to a bush for a very unexpected sighting.

Mike Hutchinson in action

A Brown-throated three-fingered Sloth
and baby not three feet away!
We spent the last night in Bocas town to catch the early flight out to Panama City the next morning. We were heading back to the Darien Gap.

Friday, 3 January 2020

Panama...Bocas del Toro

With filming in Guatemala finished in October our attention turned to Panama. Panama was the only missing gap in the series and after spending 10 days there in May 2019, we had to return to finish what we'd started to complete the programme. At 04:40 on 26th November we were back at Heathrow Terminal 5 for our flight to Panama City via Madrid. First stop...Bocas del Toro, the 'Galapagos of Central America'.

Bocas del Toro - 'Galapogas of Central America'

Our stay at Bocas was hosted by the wonderful Jim and Renee Kimball, co-owners of Tranquilo Bay Eco Adventure Lodge, whom Nigel and I met at Birdfair 2019. This wonderful resort is situated on the Island of Bastimentos in the Caribbean Sea, a 30 minute boat ride from Bocas del Toro - the diversity here is amazing!

Bocas del Toro is a very attractive town on the Caribbean
and attracts large numbers of tourists.

Bocas waterfront.

Leaving Bocas for Tranquilo Bay

The balcony at Tranquilo Bay Resort
frequented by Prothonotary Warblers

Local houses on Isla Bastimentos
The grounds around the cabins were alive with birds. Dozens of Prothonotary Warblers, Tawny-crested Tanagers moving through in small flocks, Bronzy Hermit hummingbirds and metallic green Orchid Bees feeding on the verbena. 

Masked Tityra were a common sight.

...and another

Prothonotary Warbler, 1st winter

Prothonotary Warbler, adult

Prothonotary Warbler - extremely common around the
lodge and grounds, usually 3-4 together.

Prothonotary Warbler
Sunset at Tranquilo Bay Lodge

At night the grounds of the Lodge came alive with different creatures. The most frequently found reptiles were Striped Basilisks. These medium/large lizards can be found sleeping along the length of branches at about head height. They have amazing blue eyes...

Striped Basilisk

And another...

A rather attractive wandering spider sp

Jim also runs a moth trap most nights and it attracts vast numbers of species, big and small.

A large green Hawkmoth sp.

Another attractive species - no idea what it is though

Another unidentified sp

Adhemarius gannascus - one I could ID

Another mystery moth...

Looks like some type of emerald?

Orizaba Silkmoth
Filming around Bocas was set to continue for the next 4 days providing great opportunities to see more of the local wildlife. Many birds are particularly unworried by human presence allowing great views.

Groove-billed Ani
Common in flocks.

Groove-billed Ani

Little Blue Heron

Laughing Gull

Northern Water Thrush

Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican

Snowy Egret

Spotted Sandpiper

Spotted Sandpipers are common, very common...

Turkey Vulture

Black Hawk

Looking a little miserable in the rain...

I've certainly been putting my Nikon P1000 through its paces in the last year and I'm very pleased with the results. I can't imagine travelling without it now.