Friday, 31 May 2019

Harpy Eagle, the quest continues...

Day 4, The adult will come today!

We're up at 4 am, have breakfast and head off in the dark on the hike back to the Harpy nest viewing site. We have to get there before sunrise just in case the parent decides to make an early appearance. Just as we take to the main trail Mauricio finds another snake, this time a mildly venomous northern cat-eyed snake Leptodeira septentrionalis, which we admire and then release.

By now my feet are starting to take a distinct dislike to the wellies I've been wearing for the last day or so and the tell-tale signs of  blisters forming becomes a distraction. By the time I reach the viewing area I'm in a lot of pain and have difficulty walking. My, how quickly things can go downhill.  Carlos very kindly sends someone back to the village on a three-hour round trip just to get my regular boots! They certainly help but the damage is done for sure.

The Harpy chick takes my mind off the feet though and the sight and sounds of Great Green Macaws is fantastic. Other birds making an appearance during the day include Long-tailed Tyrant, Olive-sided Flycatcher, White-whiskered Puffbird, Crimson-crested Woodpecker and the highlight - a scarce Crimson-bellied Woodpecker. Green and Black arrow poison frogs Dendrobates auratus were another sought after species.

Dendrobates auratus - a jewel in the leaf litter

Crimson-crested Woodpecker, female

Crimson-crested Woodpecker, female

White-whiskered Puffbird

White-whiskered Puffbird

It's intense watching the Harpy nest all day, particularly for Mike up on the platform, the pressure is on him to capture the moment the adult arrives on camera. We really want to see the feeding behaviour but despite our patience the adult still doesn't return and the chick continues to call.

So far it's been a super sunny day but around 4 pm the skies suddenly darken, the wind picks up and with a crack of thunder the heavens open on us. This is tropical rain, very heavy and hammering down. Luckily there's a bit of shelter in the form of a blue tarp strung between some trees and most of the equipment is moved under it. Nigel makes a radio call to check on Mike who decides to stay put and see if it stops, but it doesn't. If anything it gets worse and Rafa expresses concern that the river crossing 20 minutes away might rapidly become impassable if we don't go soon.  At this point Nigel sends me back to the village as my feet are making me very slow and the team will likely catch me up soon enough.

I don't need to be asked twice, the last thing I want is to be a liability to the rest of the team, particularly as we are making a hasty retreat. I set off back along the trail being careful to check all fallen trees and logs along the path for Terciopelos - they often sit by these waiting for prey to run along or over the fallen wood. My progress is ok to start with but the pain from the blisters soon gets far worse and I start to slow. At this point I meet Mauricio and a village guide heading back to the viewing area to help get everyone out before the river level rises. Mauricio can see I'm in difficulty and turns back to help me get back to the village.  The river crossing isn't too bad yet but with walking boots on I now get wet feet as the water depth is easily over the top of them. What was a muddy track earlier that day is now, for the most part, underwater and we have to wade back for the next hour to reach the track to the village. By the time I get back I'm exhausted - not from the distance walked but from the effort it took to avoid walking directly on my now burst blisters.

Nigel, Mike and Carlos eventually get back to the village about 45 minutes behind me - it's been quite a day. I back up Mike's data onto hard drives, eat the rice and beans dinner and then peel my socks off to look at the damage. Both heels, balls of the feet and under the toes are blistered, the heels haven't ruptured but are hot to the touch and particularly painful. I just hope they are not infected.

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

The Darién Gap...the target bird

Day 3 continued...

After a 90 minute walk in hot, humid conditions, we finally reach the viewing area for the Harpy Eagle nest. You can be forgiven for wondering how the hell they ever found this nest in the middle of nowhere but the locals found it and regularly scout the region to assist the scientists studying this rare and iconic bird - the National Bird of Panama in fact.

This nest holds a single chick (now six months old), which will stay around the nest area until it is two-years old. At this age (we've been told) the parents should be bringing in food every two days. This is what we are here to film, a majestic adult Harpy swooping into the nest with a sloth or howler monkey. We met a group of American birders at Canopy Camp the previous day who had visited the site that day and not seen the adult. This was encouraging, we had two days scheduled here and were in with a good chance.

The chick was an impressive bird. Situated some 40 meters away from the viewing point, we were looking up at the nest and although the views were superb they were limited for filming purposes. Enter Rafael (Rafa) Alverez, a Venezuelan who's as at home in the trees as he is on the ground. Rafa is here to build a platform 25 m up a large tree to give (equally skilled tree climber) cameraman Mike Hutchinson a better view of the Harpy nest and tree.

Rafael Alverez - tree climber extraordinaire

Juvenile Harpy Eagle, Darién

The chick isn't the least bit concerned by human presence.

When inquisitive the crest goes up!

Harpy nest...complete with Harpy Eagle

What are you looking at?

Even from this distance the thick, powerful legs
can be clearly seen.
Now it's just a case of sitting tight and waiting for the adult to return. Rafa and a small crew continue to build the platform but there is no sign of the adult. The chick continues to whistle mournfully in the hope it will be fed soon.

Of course the jungle is full of things to keep us busy and it wasn't long before Carlos found this stunning Hapalopus sp tarantula know as the 'pumpkin patch' or 'lemon patch' tarantula. It's not hard to see how they got their name.

Hapalopus sp - one of two seen at the viewing site.

It gets dark rapidly at this latitude and with sundown at 6 pm we pack up for the day and head back to the village just after 5 pm.  Mike and I walk in front and chat about the day's events while Biologist Mauricio De la O and one of the men from the village walk 20 ft behind us. Half way through the hike, light failing we get a call from behind. 'Snake'!  We immediately turn and head back to Mauricio who is pointing out a small coiled snake in the middle of the track - it's a Terciopelo! Also know in North America as the Fer-de-Lance, Bothrops asper is one of the most venomous snakes in Central America. Although this is only a juvenile about 18 inches long, it packs enough potent hemotoxic venom to hospitalise anyone unfortunate enough to get tagged by it and it can certainly kill you.

Terciopelo - a pitviper that was very high on my wishlist.
Ironically I'd been scanning the leaf-lined track side all the way back in the hope of seeing one of these. I hadn't been looking in the middle of the track! Mike and I had actually walked right over this one (you can just see a heel print in the left foreground). If one of us had trodden on it, it would certainly have taken a strike. They rely on their camouflage and stay put rather than flee and it definitely worked well - neither of us saw it! Mauricio moves it off to the side of the track with a stick to avoid any unwanted encounter with others walking the trail.

If you have any doubt about the potency of this species, take a look at this page on Wikipedia.

Excitement over for the day we got back to Pijibasal, had dinner and then hit our mosquito-netted beds ready for another early start to the nest site the next day.

Monday, 27 May 2019

The Darién Gap...part two

Day 3 - Deeper into the Darién Gap

We had just spent our second night in Panama staying at the fantastic Canopy Camp in Darién province in the southeast of the country. The Darién Gap itself has a bit of a reputation. Described as lawless and dangerous it is an area used by both drug and human traffickers taking 'goods' into the US from Colombia and further south and is regularly patrolled and monitored by the Panamanian military. Kidnapping is a lucrative business on the Colombian side and despite our exciting quest, I can't help but feel a little trepidation. We are in excellent hands though and safety was never an issue. Everyone is so friendly and helpful. We passed through several military checkpoints on our journey from Panama City and it's taken us a day to reach this point but our journey is by no means over. After a 04:30 breakfast the van was loaded with equipment and we set off on a 45 minute drive to Yaviza at the very end of the Pan-American Highway. You can go no further and it's strange to see the road just end and cafes, bars and restaurants take up the space in front of you.

We transferred the equipment to a waiting boat and it's then an hour-long journey along the Rio Tuira before we arrive at a small riverside dock at Pinogana. Along the route we pick up White Ibis, Little Blue Heron, Cattle Egret, Cocoi Heron, Black Vuture, Greater Ani and both Black and Crested Oropendola.

Loading the boat at Yaviza just as day breaks.

The Rio Turia is a lifeline for those living in more
remote areas of the Darién.

Mike, filming part of the journey.

Nigel and Carlos enjoying
the cooling breeze of the boat journey.

Once at Pinogana we again unload and put all the bags and equipment into two waiting 4 x 4 trucks. It's another 50 minutes of bumpy dirt roads before we reach Pijibasal, a remote native village deep in the jungle.

Administrative Building at El Real de Santa Maria.

A river to cross - 4x4 a good choice!

The dirt track to Pijibasal.

Our home for the next couple of days in Pijibasal.
It's still early and with no time to waste we dump our bags and get a lift back up to the trail head.

Getting prepared to walk - we are all excited to be here.
We all don our wellies (something I will come to regret!) - there are potentially deadly snakes, a river crossing and muddy trails to come and they will afford some protection. That said, it's 33º C, 60% humidity and definitely NOT welly weather. We are leaking from every pore, our clothes are soaking wet with sweat and we haven't even begun the hike. Anyone who thinks making wildlife documentaries is a doddle should think again, there's a ton of gear to carry and this is bloody hard work!

We are soon ready though and set off on the 1 hour 20 minute hike along jungle trails to see our target bird. This is the main purpose of our trip - to film the rare and elusive Harpy Eagle.

Saturday, 25 May 2019

The Darién Gap...

This year has been full of exciting changes, not least that I've started working part-time with my friend Nigel Marven as his Associate Producer. I also qualified as a commercial drone operator with the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) a few months back, which allows me to film and photograph professionally in the UK and abroad and it was in this capacity that I joined Nigel and cameraman Mike Hutchinson on a 10-day filming trip to Panama for a forthcoming wildlife programme about the country.

This expedition had one specific objective - but I'll get to that later! Needless to say there were many exotic and beautiful birds seen, not to mention some amazing reptiles and butterflies.

Sandwiched between Costa Rica and Colombia, Panama is part of the isthmus linking
North and South America. Bordered by the Pacific to the south
and the Caribbean to the north.

Of course there's a lot of gear to be carried on a trip like this - cameras, lenses, tripods, drone kit, optical kit, storage and back-up devices not to mention personal luggage. Lots of excess baggage!

Thankfully the airlines were very accommodating and we had a great trip out to Panama City with British Airways and Iberia via Madrid. After a very early start and nearly 17 hours after leaving Heathrow we arrived at Tocumen International Airport. Up until this point all had gone very smoothly but a hitch in communication between The Panama Film Commission and Panama Customs meant that all of our kit had to spend the night in a holding room at the airport while awaiting clearance.

The following morning we headed back to the airport and with the help of our guide, Carlos Bethancourt, we cleared customs formalities, collected our baggage and picked up climber Rafael Alverez and biologist Mauricio De la O before heading southeast along the Pan-American Highway on the long 5-hour road journey to Canopy Camp.

Before even leaving the city I started my bird list with two flyover Swallow-tailed kites, Blue-gray Tanager, Tropical Kingbird, Clay-coloured Thrush, Broad-billed Euphonia, Rufous-tailed Hummingbird, Great-tailed Grackle and Red-lored Parrot.

Blue-gray Tanager

Clay-colored Thrush

Thick-billed Euphonia, female

Tropical Kingbird

Day 2 - Into the Darién Gap...

I first heard about the mysterious Darién Gap as a young boy - I believe it was an episode of Wildlife on One way back in the late 70s or early 80's. I don’t remember the details of that programme now except that it made a deep and lasting impression on me, a name I would always remember. When I found out we would be filming here I was incredibly excited. The Darién Gap is an area of undeveloped jungle and swampland that starts at Yaviza where the Pan-American Highway stops and ends in Turbo, Northern Colombia to the south.

Our long drive south was punctuated with a lunch stop at a fantastic little roadside cafe which had several hummingbird feeders by the terrace giving incredibly close views of several species including Black-throated Mango, Rusty-tailed Hummingbird and White-necked Jacobin.

Black-throated Mango, female

Black-throated Mango, female

Black-throated Mango, male

Black-throated Mango, male

Snowy-bellied Hummingbird

Snowy-bellied Hummingbird

Rusty-tailed Hummingbird

Lunch over, we continued our journey south arriving at Canopy Camp later that afternoon.

Canopy Camp is one of three eco-lodges offering great birding and wildlife watching opportunities in Panama. This luxury 'glamping' style accommodation was to be the starting point for our journey on day three.

Canopy Camp in Darién Province, Panama