22-24 July 2014
If you cannot make it to Darién National Park there are still plenty of great places to add some amazing birds to your list. The Canopy Tower family recently opened Camp Darién situated a 20 km south of Metití where you can stay in luxurious tent cabins and visit some great birding destinations with their guides (though not for cheap!). We had the fortune to get a sneak peak at Camp Darién prior to its opening in 2012 and had a chance to check out some of the new birding destinations they were exploring in the area. There is easily a full week’s birding in eastern Panamá without entering Darién National Park. On our current trip we revisited a few sites we had been to before as well as some new sites. You can read brief summaries from all of the places we visited in 2012 on our blog.
One of the best and easiest birding spots along the Interamerica is El Salto Road where you can encounter White-eared Conebill, Bare-crowned Antbird, Blue Cotinga, King Vulture, Double-banded Graytail, Black Antshrike, Red-billed Scythebill, Spot-crowned Barbet, Rufous-winged Antwren, Olivaceous Piculet, One-colored Becard, White-headed Wren, Yellow-breasted Flycatcher (aka Ochre-lored Flatbill depending on which splits you follow), Gray-cheeked Nunlet, Red-rumped Woodpecker, Golden-green Woodpecker, Western (Choco) Syristes, and more. El Salto Road provides great access to some nice forested area along a dirt road that is seldom traveled. The forest is a few meters back from the road edge, so you don’t get the closed canopy overhead and view into the understory that, say, Pipeline Rd provides, but you can still see many forest birds from the road, including several nice species that are not found in the canal area.
Be warned though the road heats up quick and there is little shade, so get there as early as you can. El Salto Road is located approximately 29 km south of Metití and is well signed. Birding is good the entire length of the road (about 2-3 miles). The beginning of the road is a bit scrubby with forest only on one side but as you head further along the road there are nice patches of forest on both sides of the road. Closer to the river the forest starts to get scrubbier again but the birding is still good. At the end of the road there is a little path on the right that parallels the river (Be sure to check this area for Crane Hawk).
We hit the road early and started birding about ½ mile in from the highway. Birding along the road is really excellent. When you start your day with a Golden-green Woodpecker you know that it’s going to be a good day. We saw two individuals and heard the unique call of a third bird along the road. The Golden-green Woodpecker occurs from the Darién province south to northern Argentina, covering most of the northern countries in South America. However, despite having such a large range, Golden-green Woodpeckers are rare in Panamá and we were quite psyched to find one especially since we missed this guy back in 2012.
As we continued birding along the road we practically tripped over White-bellied Antbirds. Every 100 m or so you could hear one or more birds singing from the thick undergrowth in a sharp series of descending notes. However, that wasn’t the case for the bird we were really on the hunt for. We heard that Double-banded Graytail is frequently seen along El Salto road and we were on the lookout. We listened intently for their dry insect like trill but didn’t hear anything. As the morning wore on we worked stretches of road hoping to turn up the Graytail. Finally we found a few birds foraging acrobatically in the canopy and it looked like a Double-banded Graytail, but at a distance it was difficult to be certain. Thankfully the birds in question worked their way down the tree and we got great looks at two Double-banded Graytails, not a terribly common bird and one we heard but failed to see along the road from El Real to Pirre Uno at a known territory. We saw a ton of great birds along this road, you can see our complete eBird list here. El Salto road is also a great place to see Blue Cotinga (at least during the time of year we visited). We saw 4 Blue Cotingas in one morning and several of them were perched up so close you almost did not need your binoculars! Unfortunately the camera was locked away in the car. One of these days we will learn to carry the camera no matter how likely it looks to rain, no matter how tired we are, no matter the excuse.
Another great destination is Reserva San Francisco north of Tortí. The entrance to the reserve is located 9.6 km north of Tortí at a large stand of bamboo with a large iron gate. Reserva San Francisco protects lowland and foothill rainforest as well as the drinking water for the region. The reserve is owned and operated by the Roman Catholic Church and Pastor Willy. Access to the reserve is readily given for a $10 per person fee. If you want to access the reserve first thing in the morning, stop by the office the day before to pay your fee and get permission. When we were there Pastor Willy was not around but the farm hands told us it would not be a problem to go birding early in the morning and pay on our way out. To get to the birding areas from the entrance follow the dirt road around and through the farm toward the hills staying on the main track. You can park at the edge of the forest patch and walk uphill along the road until you see a small side track off to your left that crosses a small stream and continues up hill. The path will lead you to the water pipes and through some great habitat. In 6 hours we racked up 77 species, some of which were quite good. We were on the lookout for the Yellow-green Tyrannulet, a Panamanian endemic that occurs from the canal zone east to the Darién but nowhere is it common. Most people see the Yellow-green Tyrannulet at the Metro Park in Panamá city but given how hard it can be to find we needed to look in as many places as we could. The Yellow-green Tyrannulet is a tiny yellowish tyrannulet of the canopy with a white eye-ring and yellowish wing-bars. However, behavior might be the best characteristic to identify this little guy. They frequently perch horizontally with a cocked tail and drop their wings and lift each one over their back, a rather unique behavior for a tyrannulet. Only once did we find a canopy flock with a suspicious little bird high up in the canopy that was perching horizontally and cocking its tail. We got miserable looks but we managed to see a white eye-ring on a fully yellow tyrannulet which could be nothing else but the Yellow-green Tyrannulet. A little disappointed with our look we lackadaisically continued to bird the area near the water pipe. Near the water pipe, we heard a simple, repeated two-note song but for the life of us we could not place it. It sounded familiar but different, was it a variant of a common bird we knew? We were worn down and more than a little out of it after the trek into Darién National Park to say the least. We listened for another couple of minutes when Josh started to frantically jump up and down yelling Speckled Mourner, Speckled Mourner. Duh! How could I possibly forget the sound of the Speckled Mourner after months of studying their song? But there it was a Speckled Mourner, a bird we had been looking for since Chiapas. Josh thought he heard it once on the road into Caracol, Belize, but that was the closest we had come. Finally though, there it was, a Speckled Mourner, a bird we were increasingly concerned we were going to miss as it only ranges south to the Choco. The Speckled Mourner perched right out in the open for us and counter sang with another further off. Another day to reinforce the “always carry the camera” rule. Too bad Josh had been tired and left the camera behind, this bird was teed up at eye level 5 meters from us in perfect light! With two prizes in our pockets we headed back to the truck. While I was off investigating something along the edge of the forest Josh scanned the skies for raptors. He was hopefully looking to the skies for a Black-and-White Hawk-Eagle as they have been reported in the area in the past. What are the chances that within five minutes he saw a large raptor with a white belly and wings. No way! Here is another one we have been looking for since we entered its range in Mexico. We were looking at a soaring Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle. We were able to see the white leading edge on the forewing, a distinguishing characteristic as well as the white wing linings and the long striped tail. What a day! Two nemesis birds in one day plus we checked all of the eagles in our Birds of Panamá book.
If you are in the area Reserva San Francisco offers fantastic birding and is definitely a great site for some special birds. We were not the only ones to log Black-and-white Hawk-Eagle, Yellow-green Tyrannulet or Speckled Mourner here. The birding along the short path to the water pipe is quite good as is the birding around the scrubby edges of the forest/farm (see our complete eBird list).
After our incredible luck at Reserva San Francisco we headed north to bird the Rio Mono Bridge and the Bayano region. Rio Mono is 6.2 km south of the main Bayano Bridge just past the km marker 134 along the Interamericana. The bridge is the most obvious large bridge over a forested ravine in the entire area, is well signed, and there is plenty of space to safely park off the road. We stopped in hopes of finding One-colored Becard, Cinereous Becard, or Sooty-headed Tyrannulet, all of which have been spotted from the bridge. I guess we used up all of our birding luck at Reserva San Francisco because we could not find any of our targets. We also managed to miss a good rarity that was found the day after we visited. A nesting pair of Pearly-breasted Cuckoos were found at the Rio Mono Bridge on 25 July 2014 (read the full story here). The bridge provides a good vantage point from which to see canopy birds but the road noise and heavy traffic are extremely distracting. Our complete bird list can be found on eBird. We also spent some time exploring the side tracks around the bridge to see what we could turn up but things started to heat up quickly that morning and the forest was rather quiet so we decided to continue down the road.
If you are headed to the Darién below is a list of accommodations:
Metití: We stayed at Hotel Felicidad in Metití. Hotel Felicidad is a basic hotel, but it is comfortable enough with cold showers, air conditioning, and tv. The hotel is on the left side of the highway as you approach Metití and is well-signed. If you miss it anybody will be able to direct you to the hotel. There is not a restaurant at the hotel but there are several restaurants around town. This is the place to stay to explore El Salto Road and areas further south along the Interamericana.
Tortí: We stayed at Hotel Avicar in Tortí when we visited Reserva San Francisco and the Bayano region (including the Rio Mono Bridge). Hotel Avicar is a step up from accommodations in Metití with hot water, air conditioning, pool, tv, internet, and nice spacious rooms. There is also a restaurant onsite and is probably your best option in the area.