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 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.
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!