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OCTOBER 25, 2018

VENTFLASH #244: Panama Harpy Eagle Opportunity!

Dear friends:

Ten days ago, VENT concluded its most recent tour to the Canopy Camp in the Darien lowlands of Panama. This trip was guided by VENT tour leader Barry Zimmer, who returned with the exhilarating news that his group had observed a Harpy Eagle at a nest! I was thrilled by Barry's report and have been anxious to share it with our travelers. Following is the word-for-word account of the experience I received from Barry:

"As we cruised along the Rio Chucunaque and the Rio Membrillo in our dugout canoes in the early morning, birds seemed to be everywhere. Ringed and Amazon kingfishers flushed repeatedly from the riverbanks. Several White-necked Puffbirds were seen on high snags. A Green Ibis was spotted in a bare tree and allowed superb views. Two stunning Capped Herons posed in the morning sun. A handsome Red-throated Caracara was spotted by one boat, while a brilliant male Blue Cotinga was seen by the other. Greater Anis were downright abundant with a ridiculous total of 308 individuals counted on the way upriver. Brown-hooded and Blue-headed parrots, Lineated and Crimson-crested woodpeckers, flocks of Yellow-rumped Caciques, and a close Black Oropendola—the list of amazing birds went on and on. Throughout the ride, troops of Mantled Howler Monkeys voiced their displeasure at our presence. But despite all this excitement, we pressed on. Our real goal lay ahead near the Embera-Wounaan village of Sinai.

“After nearly three hours in the boat, we finally disembarked at an inconspicuous trail on the river's edge. We still had a mile-and-a-half walk to reach our destination. We tried not to stop, but a responsive male Bare-crowned Antbird and a Rufescent Tiger-Heron in the trail demanded our attention. Finally, we arrived at a small clearing and peered up ahead into the middle of a giant Cuipo tree. Our eyes were drawn to a large bundle of sticks in the middle crotch of the tree. Just visible in the center of this giant nest was a large, gray, double-crested head—Harpy Eagle! Harpy is perhaps the most iconic and sought-after bird of Central and South America, not to mention the national bird of Panama. For a long time, we had views of the head only, but eventually our patience was rewarded, as the eagle stretched its wings and sat up on the left side of the nest. Gasps were audible from throughout the group. It was hard to contain our excitement. For about ten minutes, we enjoyed fabulous scope views of this nearly mythical bird that is a true symbol of wilderness. Our journey had been rewarded. Harpy Eagle was voted the favorite bird of the tour!"

Harpy Eagle on nest, Darien; Panama's Canopy Camp, October 2018 - Photo: Barry Zimmer

I share this story for a couple of reasons, first and foremost because few things in life bring me greater pleasure than marvelous adventures in nature. Sighting something as magnificent as a Harpy Eagle is a life-enrichening experience, and that it occurred on a VENT tour is a source of great joy to me. Second, our next tour to the Canopy Camp will depart in less than three months, January 12–20, 2019, and with the eagle at a nest, there is a high probability that the bird will still be readily viewable.

For many birders and naturalists, seeing a Harpy Eagle is the ultimate natural history experience available in the Neotropics. A low-density species by nature, Harpy Eagle requires extensive tracts of lowland forest to survive, and with precious few exceptions, this bird has disappeared almost completely from its historical range in Mexico and Central America. The reality is that the vast rainforests of the Darien lowlands of eastern Panama are the bird's last major stronghold north of South America. In fact, with the exception of certain places in Brazil, a stay at the Canopy Camp offers the best opportunity in the world to see a Harpy Eagle. Unlike Brazil and other places in South America, Panama can be reached in several hours via flights from a number of major American cities.

The Canopy Camp is the most recent addition to the Canopy Family of lodges, the others being the famed Canopy Tower and the Canopy Lodge at El Valle. The camp also happens to be the first-ever high-quality accommodation available to birders and naturalists in the Darien. While seeing a Harpy Eagle is the highlight of any of our Canopy Camp tours, I'll emphasize that the Camp offers much more, including opportunities to see a variety of macaws and other birds that do not occur farther west in Panama and that are not possible on VENT tours to the Canopy Lodge or Canopy Tower. For some, the word “camp” may convey images of basic or rustic accommodations amid rough surroundings. In fact, the Canopy Camp is built in the style of the classic Africa tented camp, featuring spacious accommodations, durable large canvas tents with hardwood floors, windows, beds, private baths, and plumbing with hot water.

Canopy Camp; standard tent (interior view) - Photo: Alex Alba

I was at the Canopy Camp in 2017 with my colleague Barry Lyon. We were impressed both by the high-quality facilities of the camp and the equally high quality of birding there, highlighted by the sighting of a Harpy Eagle. If you have not yet been to the Canopy Camp, and if seeing a Harpy Eagle is on your “wish list,” I strongly recommend our upcoming tour this January. This tour will be led by Erik Bruhnke, a personable and enthusiastic tour leader who loves sharing natural history with others. As we are within three months of departure, only a limited number of spaces remain available.

Panama's Darien Lowlands: Canopy Camp, January 12–20, 2019 with Erik Bruhnke and a local leader; $3,995 in double occupancy from Panama City.

Best wishes,

Victor Emanuel