Friday, 31 January 2020

Panama...Canopy Tower

We were half way through our trip and heading west, back along the Pan-American Highway. Back towards Panama City and on to the Canopy Family's next property, the Canopy Tower where Carlos is Head Guide. We made a couple of stops en route to get some drone shots of the van travelling along the highway and once more at Avicar aka 'The Hummingbird Cafe'.

After five hours, we finally arrive. The Tower is an old disused US military radar tower overlooking the Panama Canal. Built in the 1960's it was turned into a unique eco-lodge in 1997 and is situated in the stunning Soberania National Park.

The colour scheme (turquoise blue, maroon, yellow) is special too. The designer who came up with the colour scheme based it on the colours found on one of the local residents, the Keel-billed Toucan!

The Canopy Tower - a birder's dream
The colours inside and out are all found
on the Keel-billed Toucan.

From the top of the Tower you are at eye level with the trees giving incredible views of birds and mammals as you would never normally see them. Below the viewing deck is a comfy relaxation area and the restaurant, below that, the rooms, it's just incredible. A few birds before breakfast...

Bay-breasted Warblers are by far the most
frequently seen warbler at the Tower.

Another one, they were moving through all the time.

Wouldn't mind seeing one of these in the UK

Cinnamon Becard

Scarlet Tanager, male in winter attire.

Shining Honeycreeper, female

Shining Honeycreeper, female

Tennessee Warbler
Our goal on this day was to head out along the Pipeline road. The Pipeline Road was constructed by the US army during the 1960's as a fuel pipeline but was never used. Nowadays the original construction track that runs alongside the pipeline, extends for 17 km into Soberania National Park and is one of the best birding spots in Panama.

The sharp ears of Carlos Bethancourt soon located our target filming bird, the Red-capped Manakin...

Red-capped Manakin, male

These stunning birds have the most incredible dance to attract the attention of females. Likened to the moonwalk, this one attracted two female Red-capped and a Blue-capped Manakin. He was also joined on the 'dance branch' by a juvenile male, which looks exactly like a female except for its yellowish thighs.

The scene was soon upset though, the birds vanished but then Carlos discovered why - he'd found a Slaty-backed Forest Falcon sitting a few meters further back in the jungle.

Slaty-backed Forest Falcon
Rarest of the forest falcons in Panama

After getting the footage we needed, we moved on to our next filming subject, army ants! Army ants are quite common along the pipeline road and the quickest, easiest way to locate them is to keep your ears open for their followers, antbirds.

We soon found exactly what we had been looking for and with the ants, came the birds.

Spotted Antbird - definitely my favourite, so smart!

Spotted Antbird, male

Spotted Antbird, male
Antbirds don't actually eat the ants but rather the insects that move away from the army ant swarm. As such, they stay low and very close to the swarm and often in good numbers. The ant swarm we were filming was being trailed by 2-3 Bi-coloured Antbirds, a pair of Spotted Antbirds and at least two Ocellated Antbirds with their stunning blue facial skin.

Ocellated Antbird

Ocellated Antbird

Ocellated Antbird

Antbirds weren't the only birds following the swarm though. Greay-headed Tanagers were also taking advantage of the feast along with Plain Brown and Northern Barred Woodcreepers.

Grey-headed Tanager

Plain-brown Woodcreeper
Filming over for the morning, it was back to Canopy Tower to pack and prep to move to our next location, the Canopy Lodge.

Tuesday, 28 January 2020 and birds.

We were half way through our trip and into our last day or two at Canopy Camp. This morning we were on a quest to see a very scarce bird in Panama - and, unsurprisingly, it involved another boat trip. After a 45-minute drive we reached our departure point - a UNICEF camp by the Chucunaque River! I couldn't quite believe we were driving through a refugee camp, surrounded by people who had made the dangerous journey from Colombia, through the Darien to Panama. All were living in either white tents or ramshackle wooden huts. Getting out in the middle of this makeshift 'town' with tens-of-thousands of pounds worth of equipment seemed wrong. These poor people had nothing!

After a short time to reflect, we had to leave and meet our boat driver down by the river.

Nigel and Mike find 'our' dugout for the journey ahead.

Now, to get out from between the other boat...

We're away at last...

And it's another 45 minutes along the murky waters of the Chucunaque.
The river (apart from being muddy) was remarkably clean. No litter, no bottles - heartwarming to see after our visit in May when it was strewn with plastic bottles. It was also rich in birds -  Southern Lapwing, Amazon, Green and Ringed Kingfishers, Cocoi, Striated, Great Blue, Little Blue and Green Herons as well as Snowy Egrets. It was alive with birds!

As we reached our stop on the river bank, it soon became obvious it was going to be a VERY muddy walk up the river bank and into the banana plantation for the bird we'd come to see. But it didn't take long to find, the incredible little Dusky-backed Jacamar. A pair in fact.

What a bill!

They stayed in the treetops but the Nikon P1000
still managed to get a shot.

Super little birds
Carlos also found us another nice bird, a Spectacled Parrolet. At just 12 cm long it'smaller than a Budgie!

Spectacled Parrolet.

Spectacled Parrolet

Satisfied we'd seen our target bird we headed back to the boat and back to the Canopy Camp.

This cool lizard was scampering around the Camp, a Rainbow Ameiva, Holcosus undulatus.

Rainbow Ameiva

Chestnut_headed Oropendola

Spot-crowned Barbet, female

Spot-crowned Barbet, male
That evening after dinner I was just heading into the accommodation when I noticed some eyes glinting in the head torch. A closer look revealed this enormous wandering spider. Not sure which species but I was sure I didn't want to take a bite from those fangs.

Wandering Spider Sp.

Wandering Spider Sp.

Lots of little Common Rain Frogs (Craugastor fitzingeri) around the cabin too. These dinky little frogs could be heard calling in the dark long before you found them.

Common Rain Frog, Craugastor fitzingeri

Common Rain Frog, Craugastor fitzingeri

Our time at the camp was over, the next morning we would be heading west, back to Panama City and the Canopy Tower just beyond.

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