Day 11 |
Oct 01, 2009

Darien Jungle, Panama

By JJ Apéstegui, Onboard Ornithologist

Co-ordinates: 08°19’3”N, 078°14’9”W

Weather: Overcast with scattered showers

Air Temperature: 26C

Sea Temperature: 30C

Pressure: 1006 Hpa

Wind: NW 18 Knots

Today’s adventure took us to the Darien Jungle in Eastern Panama. The famous “Darien Gap” is the only place in the American Continent where the Pan-American Highway has never been connected due to the difficulties of the terrain and the jungle; it has become one of the hardest places of the world to access and, partly for this reason, has also been protected from the ravages of civilization.

The Darien is one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world, and is also home to several indigenous groups who live in relative isolation; it was one of these that we intended to visit today: the Embera.

We started at around 8:30 in the morning getting the Zodiacs into the water and then embarking our guests, and here is where the first highlight of the day happened: I had noticed a bird, trying to perch on the port anchor, which was heaved, and thought it looked somewhat funny. At first I believed it was only an immature Yellow-headed Caracara, but it had a strange shape, reminiscent of a nighthawk, with the difference that this one was too big to be a nighthawk.

So I decided to investigate once I had my group of guests onboard, and we went to the starboard side of the ship where this bird had moved to. It was a great and very nice surprise to see it perching on the anchor chain, and to realize that it was an Oilbird.

Now, for those not familiar with Neotropical birds this may mean nothing, but the Oilbird is in a group by itself for its peculiarity. They inhabit caverns where they roost by the hundreds, they are mostly nocturnal and they have a diet of fruit, mostly from palms and trees in the avocado family, which are very high in fat content.

Their chicks become so fat before fledging that people used to collect them and use them as oil lamps! And if this is not strange enough, they are extremely rare in Panama, to the point that the Field Guide of the Birds of Panama mentions only three records of them.

The closest place where they nest is in Colombia, although it is suspected that there may be breeding colonies in Panama and maybe even Costa Rica. After giving everyone a chance to take photographs, not in the least for proof, we left on our expedition of the day.

Our trip was to the mouth of the Mogue River, about three miles away, and then up the river for some eight more miles; the ship could not get closer since the bay of San Miguel is very shallow. It is here where Vasco Núñez de Balboa supposedly saw the Pacific Ocean in 1513.

It took us about two hours of leisurely Zodiac sail to get to the vicinity of the village of Mogue, where the Embera waited for us, but because the navigation was dependent on the tide, we had to actually pull our Zodiacs at some point, since the tide had not yet made it that high up the river.

We finally disembarked on a bank near a hut and made our way to the village by foot, for about 20 minutes. On our arrival, the people of Mogue came to greet us in their traditional garb and body paint. The Embera are a physically beautiful people and very friendly as well.

We were given an explanation of their way of life by one of our local guides, “Panama Pete”, and then witnessed and participated in some dancing with the locals. After that there was the opportunity to purchase some local handicrafts weaved from palm fibers, and for the most adventurous, even to get painted in the fashion of the locals, with the juice of the fruit from a tree in the coffee family.

Others preferred to take a short hike for birdwatching with me, in the hopes of seeing some of the so called “Darien Specialties”, species of birds that are unique to this part of the world, but as we started, the skies opened and we were drenched in a typical tropical rainstorm. So much for the birding.

Still we were able to find a few species of birds, one of them the very colorful Crimson-collared Tanager. After this we made our way back to the Zodiacs, since the tide had started dropping and this determines the end of our time in the Embera village.

Coming back we went once again at a slow pace, and I was left as the last Zodiac of the group, taking advantage of whatever possibilities for birdwatching appeared. We saw many Whimbrels, Willets (types of Sandpipers), White Ibises and Egrets, and finished the birding day with some Laughing Gulls and two Blue-footed Boobies, once back on the gulf.

Back on the Prince Albert II the day was capped with a varied recapitulation presented by the expedition staff and our local guides, followed as usual by an excellent dinner.