With the challenge of getting to Rancho Frio (see following post) in Panama's Darien province overcome, the business of birding was seriously underway. The setting for our base looked good: the park ranger station pleasantly located in the midst of the rainforest by a lovely stream. Our first morning saw us in a forest clearing a short distance from the station. We were happy to see Viridian Dacnis, Slaty-throated Gnatcatcher and Choco Sirystes here. We walked various trails in the vicinity of Rancho Frio that day with some memorable ornithological encounters.
Sapayoa was the last of the 234 bird families of the world that I had not seen so I was pleased indeed to finally connect with a pair of these enigmatic birds in a gully not far from the station. Slaty-winged Foliage-gleaner and Lemon-spectacled Tanager were wanted additions to the list, and we were pleasantly surprised to find a Speckled Mourner – a difficult species anywhere.
Then, late in the afternoon, we heard what at first was thought to be the menacing noise of the grating tusks of angry White-lipped Peccaries. As we were wondering whether we should take to the trees (these animals can be quite aggressive) a Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo appeared and perched on a log briefly before fluttering through the dense vegetation for a few metres and disappearing. The noise had been its bill clapping. Unfortunately it was not seen by all, but this is a megatick by any standard and one we were very fortunate to connect with. Our guide Euclides (Kilo) Campos was excellent: attentive, patient and very good at his job.
|Guide Euclides (Kilo) Campos|
After two nights at Rancho Frio, we began our trek up the lower slopes of Cerro Pirre to our camp, Plastico, at an elevation of 600 metres. Porters had gone ahead earlier to set up tents, cooking facilities and other camping provisions.
It took us 5 hours to get up to Plastico, birding along the
way. Birds were not the only things on our minds. Some of us walked over a venomous Pit-Viper (Porthidium lansbergi) before it was spotted.
A green-and-gold Harlequin Frog (Atelopus glyphus) was one of several delightful amphibians in the leaf litter.
We weren’t too far
up the trail before we encountered a Plumbeous Hawk – one of the more difficult
neotropical raptors. White Hawk was another nice raptor spotted along the trail.
Sapayoa was again encountered while White-ruffed Manakin – the first of quite a few to be seen – showed well. A much desired Wing-banded Antbird was tracked down, this being one of the best sites for this tricky species; 3 or 4 more were to be seen on the mountain. Tody Motmot was other highly desirable target that showed nicely near the sometimes steep and trying trail.
|Plastico camp Cerro Pirre mid-elevation|
We arrived at our camp perched on a saddle in the mid-elevation foothills of Cerro Pirre in the early afternoon to find that all had been set up nicely by the hard-working porters and our cook. That afternoon we walked down a steep slope to a stream, seeing yet another Sapayoa along with a couple of Dull-mantled Antbirds. Birds seen around the camp and along the nearby ridge included Yellow-eared Toucanet and Black-and-yellow Tanager, while in the early evening, Tawny-faced Quail was heard.
|Porters heading to the summit of Cerro Pirre|
The next day the group split, with some folk either unwilling or unable to tackle the very steep climb to the ridge camp atop Cerro Pirre at 1150 metres. Half the group camped the second night up on the ridge while the others remained at Plastico camp. I hiked to the summit but returned the same day because logistical difficulties (even water had to be carried up) limited the number of people who could stay at the top. I had heard nightmarish stories about how difficult this climb to the summit was, but in fact it was not nearly as bad as I expected. I was up there in about 4 hours, with some birding along the way.
Not far from Plastico on the way up we encountered a feeding flock that included a much wanted Panamanian endemic - Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker. Further on, a highlight of the ascent was a small group of Blue-fronted
Parrotlets feeding near the trail; this species normally is a quick fly-over. A
Brown-billed Scythebill showed among another feeding flock while a Violet-throated
(Emerald) Toucanet was seen closer towards the summit. Tooth-billed Hummingbird
put in a couple of brief appearances.
|Endemic-rich high ridges of Cerro Pirre|
My time at the top was limited but I saw Varied Solitaire, Pirre Bush-Tanager and Pirre Hummingbird. Birds seen by those who camped included Beautiful Treerunner and Green-naped Tanager. A highlight of the trip came during my descent with Kilo, not long before Plastico camp, when a Black-crowned Antpitta performed magnificently, perched on a limb over the trail as it called and displayed vigorously.
After a second night at Plastico, we found a Central
American Pygmy Owl calling above the camp in the early morning. As we descended
slowly from the camp, a second Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker showed, then a magnificent
Ornate Hawk-Eagle was spotted perched above the track.
Fulvous-vented Euphonia also showed nicely near the
track. We took our time getting back, arriving
back at Rancho Frio in the late afternoon to enjoy the luxury of a cool bath in
the stream. We heard Crested Owl, Choco Screech-Owl and Spectacled Owl
about Rancho Frio but failed to see any of them. We did see a most impressive
Smoky Jungle Frog (Lepidodactylus pentadactylus) during our final evening at the station. Late in the afternoon of our last day we had a second
Crested Eagle – a begging juvenile a short way from Rancho Frio.
Our five-day stay in the area ended with us retracing our
steps: hiking back to the forest edge; back in the truck for the drive to El Real; then the boat ride
back to Yaviza, where we arrived at lunch-time. This time the tide was low,
with numerous waterbirds showing nicely including Grey-necked Wood-Rail and
Unfortunately I had
dropped my camera in a creek on the way out so the boat ride was photo-free (birdwise) for me. The
afternoon was occupied with the long drive west to our next destination –
Burbayar Lodge; on the way we called in at Torti to pick up the bulk of our
A lorry had overturned on the road, spilling hundreds of
cans of beer, which were quick to be picked up by opportunistic
|Group pic before departing Rancho Frio|
|Boarding the boat at El Real|
|Free beer on the Pan-American Highway|