Nusagandi/Llano Carti Road

30-31 July 2014

Having spent nearly two months in Panamá between our current and a prior trip, we have seen some really, truly incredible birds. However, we still had a few more to chase down in the Nusagandi area. Nusagandi is a forested area owned by the Guna (Kuna) indigenous group along the Caribbean slope approximately 2 ½ hours east of Panamá City. The area is known for several rare and local birds such as Slate-throated Gnatcatcher, Spiny-faced Antshrike, and Sapayoa, as well as being an excellent location to encounter some other species such as Sulphur-rumped Tanager and Olive-backed Quail-Dove.

To enter the Guna (Kuna) Yala Comarca you must pay a fee, and no vehicles are allowed to enter the Comarca before 7:00 am or after 4:00 pm. When we visited they asked us for $25 to drive the road but they said that we could walk the road for free. Since we only had time to go a short distance on the road, and we were in the range of our target species already, we figured it was not worth the 25 bucks to drive for an hour or two. We locked up the truck and set off along the road on foot despite the afternoon heat and the threat of rain. It was a good thing we walked, because we were not more than 200 meters from the check point when we came across a big flock containing both of the target species we were hoping to get there along the road! We saw two Slate-throated Gnatcatchers and three Sulphur-rumped Tanagers in a mixed-species flock that also contained Rufous-winged Tanager, Tawny-crested Tanager, Plain-colored Tanager, Golden-hooded Tanager, Emerald Tanager, Dusky-faced Tanager, Blue Dacnis, and more. The birding along the road was actually pretty incredible given that it was 1:30 in the afternoon, with some other nice birds including White-ruffed Manakin, Ruddy-breasted Seedeater and a surprise White-thighed Swallow that shot just over our heads like a missile. We birded along the road for only 2 hours and we racked up 55 species (eBird list here). The Slate-throated Gnatcatcher was an especially good find as they are fairly rare and local within four small regions in Panamá.

That night we camped at the Guna Yala check point for free with limited facilities (pit toilet). The tribe has a bunk house at the check point that was available for tourists in the past but now seems to house SENAFRONT employees as there is also a SENAFRONT check point at the entrance to the Guna Yala Comarca.

The best spot in the house to get cell phone reception at the bunkhouse in Nusungandi

The best spot in the house to get cell phone reception at the bunkhouse in Nusagandi

The SENAFRONT folks were all very nice and super interested in what we were doing. Several folks came by to say hi and to figure out what the gringos were up to. We told them about our birding adventures and they happily told us that there is an owl who hangs out around the bunkhouse. After a little more inquiry we figured out that they were talking about a Choco Screech-Owl. While the Choco Screech-Owl has not been officially split from the Vermiculated Screech-Owl it seems an obvious candidate for a future split as it is vocally quite distinct from the Vermiculated Screech-Owl that is found further north in Central America and Mexico. We headed down to the bunk house after dark to the spot where they told us the owl usually hangs out and sure enough there was a Choco-Screech Owl right next to the bunkhouse, hanging out in the floodlight, despite the noise and commotion of a dozen soldiers hanging out.

Although the birding is great along the Llano-Carti Road and inside the Comarca, perhaps the most well-known birding destination is the Ibe Igar trail. This is where many people go to look for the Spiny-faced Antshrike (Xenornis setifrons). Unfortunately, too many people have been using playback here and it is no longer a very reliable find here. Fortunately we had found it previously in Cerro Jefe, as there are not many places to actually see this species! Antshrike aside, the Ibe Igar trail is still a great birding destination. We heard from a few folks that the Olive-backed Quail-Dove is sometimes seen along the trail and given that this is still our nemesis bird we were keen to get on the trail early in the morning. Luckily the Ibe Igar trailhead (specific directions provided in A Bird Finding Guide to Panamá) is located before the Guna Yala checkpoint so you can access the trail before 7:00 am. We started hiking the trail just before sunrise, sneaking around every corner, and scanning down every straight stretch of trail for the shy Quail-Dove. Just at dawn, off to the side of the trail, we heard an insistent and energetic pip call that we were not familiar with. We tracked it down and found a pair of Plain Xenops doing some sort of courting behavior that I had never seen before. They were both making a high pitched pip call while walking horizontally on a branch fanning and flicking their tails, definitely not any normal behavior we were familiar with in this species. I record the calls and Josh tried to take a video but hand holding a large camera in early morning light doesn’t exactly lend itself to high quality videos. Being able to observe such unique behavior is one of the things I love about birding!

With the mystery solved we continued down the trail, hoping to turn up that darn Quail-Dove. As we slowly moved down the trail I could have sworn that I heard the deep call of the Olive-backed Quail-Dove. We worked the area for nearly 45 minutes and flushed a Quail-Dove to the other side of the trail. I knew I had heard a dove! We very stealthily crept through the undergrowth in pursuit, but man those guys are shy. Josh was able to see the dove’s head poorly as it walked around on the forest floor, and caught a glimpse of what was most certainly an Olive-backed Quail-Dove before it flushed again and flew across the drainage. We most certainly did not get the look we were hoping for; I guess that one goes down on the need a better view list. A bit disappointed we headed back down the trail to see who else we could turn up.

Along the second stream crossing we heard then tracked down and had killer looks at a pair of Sapayoa, a bird we were hoping to get a better look at. Wow, did we ever get a better look, as well as great photos of the pair perched together, even a video, and a pretty good recording despite the little bit of stream noise.

We also caught up with a pretty good flock near the end of the morning with Slate-colored Grosbeak, Spot-crowned Antvireo, Slaty Antwren, Checker-throated Antwren, Striped Woodhaunter, and more (see our complete bird list here). We later caught up with a third Sapayoa in another mixed flock, and we had a couple of Stripe-throated Wrens, here near the western limits of their range. We did not hear or see any Spiny-faced Antshrikes at Ibe Igar. Hopefully they are still secretly hanging out further from the trail in the ravines.

Nusagandi

Nusagandi

We really enjoyed our time at Nusagandi and think it is definitely a terrific site, some of the best birding in Panamá and very worth a stop if you are in the area. Besides the Ibe Igar trail, several other trails are described in A Bird Finding Guide to Panamá but many of them are apparently very overgrown.  We did not try to look for them on this trip, so perhaps they are passable? As well, birding is apparently excellent along the entire road down to the coast with minimal traffic (hallelujah!). While there are not any hotels nearby, Nusagandi can be easily reached from Panamá City if you depart early or if you have the gear you can always camp or sleep in your vehicle at the check point. There is a birding lodge nearby called Burbayar, but it is rustic, quite expensive, and in the past when we have inquired they have been neither friendly nor particularly responsive. It is worth noting that the trails that Burbayar claims as theirs are actually the publicly available trails, and the Ibe Igar trail is the best site for Sapayoa and Spiny-faced Antshrike no matter where you are sleeping!

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7 Comments on Nusagandi/Llano Carti Road

  1. Andy Jones // April 4, 2016 at 7:28 pm //

    There is now a reliable place to stay nearby – about a kilometer or so before you reach the now-shuttered Burbayar. It is called Garduk, and is run by a woman named Yaris and her family who live onsite. They run a simple Fonda restaurant for three meals a day (we around $20/day per person for meals). The facilities are small and basic, but I suspect that the prices are reasonable (the price was included in our guide’s package, which itself was quite reasonable). We had a queen bed in a newer wooden building with a thatched roof and a cold shower. A larger building is under construction too. I don’t see them online, but you could contact Gonzalo for more information http://www.panamabirdguide.com/

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  2. Aidan G. Kelly // April 4, 2016 at 9:08 pm //

    Hi Andy,
    Great information to have about the new place to stay. I hadn’t realised that Burbayar Lodge is closed, but that does explain why they haven’t replied to at least 3 emails I’ve sent them through their still active web site over the last few weeks. I also wasn’t able to find out if accommodation is still possible with the Guna Yala Comarca in Nusagandi. I hope to spend a few days in the Nusagandi area doing some independent birding in July this year. Not the best period of year but Kathi, you did well there at this time…

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  3. Kathi Borgmann // April 5, 2016 at 12:48 am //

    Thanks for sharing the information Andy! I’m not surprised that Burbayar is out of business, their rates were insane and they were not particularly friendly.

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  4. Andy Jones // April 5, 2016 at 1:52 pm //

    They may still technically be open, but I’m not sure. Our guide indicated that he was no longer able to get any response from them, and their website is down, but the entrance sign was still up at their gate. (By the way, Yaris, who runs Garduk, is a former employee of Burbayar.)

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  5. Aidan G. Kelly // July 21, 2016 at 9:43 pm //

    Just back from 2 weeks in Panama where I spent the last 4 nights at Garduk Lodge at Nusagandi. Reasonable price of $50/night incl. three meals/day. Burbayar Lodge is now closed as mentioned above. Facilities at Garduk are quite basic but adequate. It is also possible to have Yari accompany you on the trails for a similar price/day. She’s not a professional bird guide, but knows the trails well and is familiar with the target birds and where best to look for them. Garduk Lodge is now trying to promote itself more to birders. They now have an email address:
    Garduk.lodge@gmail.com and Yari can be phoned by cell phone at 69360334. Birding was great. No Xenornis alas, but Sapayoa, Olive-backed Quail Dove, 3 Black-crowned Antpittas, Uniform Crake, Tawny-faced Quail, Yellow-eared Toucanet, Blue Cotinga, Stripe-throated Wren, Sulphur-rumped and Rufous-winged Tanagers, Pied Puffbird, Spot-crowned Antvireo, Dull-mantled Antbird and 2 different ant swarms with plenty of Ocellated Antbirds in attendance were good compensation! Hope to post a trip report on Cloudbirders eventually, and to post some shots shortly on Surfbirds…

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  6. Kathi Borgmann // July 21, 2016 at 10:12 pm //

    Awesome! Thank you for keeping the site up-to-date. I’ve still never had a look at the Olive-backed Quail-Dove, but Nusagandi does seem like a great place to see it. Great list of species. Happy birding!

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  7. I’ve stayed at Garduk Lodge, owned and operated by Yarisel Adames and family, six times in the last two years and think they’re doing a great job with their enterprise with improvements being made all the time. A domain name has been acquired and I’m working on building the website. Yari cannot always be reached by telephone, but anyone interested in visiting Nusagandi is free to contact me in Virginia to arrange reservations. Of the many thrilling bird observations, the arrival of a flock of Blue-fronted Parrotlets in a tree by the gate on a misty evening was a highlight. I encourage visitors to support the efforts of this Guna family on the Continental Divide in the Comarca de Guna Yala.

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