Lying on a wooden platform with a grass roof and no walls, the rain forest alive at night with eerie sounds amidst complete darkness... night bird calls like alien creatures high in the canopy, the Great Potoo invoking the movie Predator; and the Common Potoo, less intimidating, but with an eerie whistle carrying through the still air. And while the potoos are amazing, my husband Derek and I are in the Darien Jungle to find one of Panama's rarest birds - the Harpy Eagle.
It's one of the largest species of eagle, inhabiting the rainforests of
Central and South America, preferring large expanses of uninterrupted forest amidst the forest canopy. However, with logging deforestation, development and agriculture, large expanses of continuous forest are scarce, resulting in the Harpy listed as "Near Threatened" and fighting for its survival. An active nest site was discovered by a local Embera Indian, and we are here to see it.
Our birding list isn't huge (3000 species out of 10,000), but we enjoy adding to it while experiencing new countries and cultures, each trip carefully researched and planned with local guides to assist. They invariably make us aware that things have changed in recent years, and with climate change and habitat loss, there has been a significant reduction in the number of birds, both common species and those rare to start with. We feel pressured to see as many of them as we can before they disappear.
Travelling in the Darien is limited due to Columbia's drug cartels, but there are several
Embera villages accessible by river and willing to provide accommodation to eco-tourists. Villages are normally made up of 5 - 20 traditional huts, simple platforms eight feet off the ground with no walls but grass roofs and located beside a river. The Emberra-Wounaan people were originally hunter-gatherers but the destruction of the Darien Jungle forced a reliance on agriculture although they maintain many traditions related to body art, dress and housing.
Our adventure, shared with 4 other birders, starts with a boat trip from Puerto Quimba, via the small town of Las Palma and up the Mogue River to the Embera village of Mogue, home for the next few days...a long day with seven hours of travel and waiting in 100F heat as neither the border guards nor the tides cooperate. Lunchtime arrival becomes dinner time as our canoe draws into the village, the sun already set. We are greeted by village adults and children who carry supplies to our sleeping quarters and produce a wonderful local meal,
eaten while seated on the floor. It's exhilarating to wake the following morning on a platform, miles into the rainforest, the eerie night sounds giving way to the dawn chorus at first light.
The plan for 'Harpy Day' is to enjoy coffee and breakfast prepared by the village women and head out with our Embera guide on a two-hour hike through the jungle to the Harpy Eagle nest, then look for other birds on a leisurely stroll back down to the village, back in time for lunch. Coffee & breakfast go as planned but that's it for the rest of the day!
The trail through thick tropical jungle is steep and muddy with significant humidity but our Embera guide trots along in rubber boots without socks, with a machete and carrying five gallons of water, making it all look easy. We realize that a two-hour hike by Emberra standards is actually a four-hour hike for us, a long way from our target with heat rising dramatically. Two of our party turn back; the rest of us trudge on. Behind our nimble guide, we slog along soaked in perspiration, watching for birds, biting insects and the legendary
Fer-De-Lance, the Darien's most deadly snake.
Birds sing beautifully but are shy and secretive, many we would like to track down but can't afford time as the day is getting on, and our sole food is a packet of peanuts, grabbed on the way out in the morning. We add a dozen new birds to our trip list (six are life birds).
As we near our target we quiet and slow our pace, creeping forward expectantly, arriving at a huge Kapok tree housing an equally huge Harpy Eagle nest - but NO Harpy Eagle! We burst out laughing...surely it's not this cruel! Undeterred, our guide launches an amazing imitation of the eagle call, and after several attempts, it ghosts into the tree, looking at us with a piercing stare. Unbelievable! Pre-historic look with a magnificent headdress of feathers, a huge, vicious beak and enormous talons, the size of a Grizzly bear's - life here as a sloth or a monkey must be nerve racking
Harpy Eagles mate when 4 or 5 years old, then remain monogamous for life. They build nests in Kapok, Brazil nut or Cambara trees, 90 feet off the ground, and often re-use the same nest for years. The female lays 2 eggs but once the first hatches, after about 55 days, the second is ignored and will not develop. Parents protect and feed the chick until it fledges (6-7 months) and even then, the young bird often stays nearby for 6-10 months, enjoying an occasional free meal from its parents. This devoted parenting means that they will only reproduce every 2 - 4 years - adding to the precarious status of the species.
We set up our telescope and focus on the bird, not daring to move for fear it might leave. It seems unperturbed. We see no chick in the nest, 100 feet off the ground. We drink in both bird and spectacular forest surroundings, remote and peaceful. You feel the sense of time, knowing this area is likely the same as it has been for hundreds of years. A magical moment.
Unfortunately, I break the silence with a scream as something bites my foot, a large insect heading into my boot - biting as it goes! Our guide pulls it out - a Bullet Ant - so named because if it stings, it feels like you have been shot! I am bitten not stung, but it's enough in the middle of the jungle, 4 hours from the village!
The spell broken, after one final look at the eagle, we head back, and set quite a pace, eager to enjoy a cold beer (packed in ice) while reliving our experience, reviewing photos and writing up our bird list for the day. We finally arrive about 4pm, too late for lunch but able to enjoy the evening meal prepared by our hosts.
The locals must think we are mad to put this effort into seeing a bird, and while I struggle with interfering in indigenous culture, by demonstrating economic value in protecting wildlife, it may help preserve it a little longer, an advantage to us all. The flip side is that we intrude, but we all need to put much more emphasis on retaining the flora and fauna in the world for future generations.
We will unlikely see the Harpy eagle in the wild again, but there are many more 'harpys' in the world for us to track down. I hope these birds survive so others enjoy them and that the eagles maintain their important role in balancing the fragile ecosystem of the Darien jungle.
Carol Mathews is a travel writer and, along with her husband, an active birder who enjoys travel throughout the world.
The Darién Gap
is home to the Embera-Wounaan and Kuna Native Americans. Travel is often by dugout canoe (piragua). On the Panamanian side, La Palma is the capital of the province and the main cultural centre. The Darién Gap had a reported population of 1,700 in 1980. Corn, mandioca, plantains, and bananas are staple crops wherever land is developed.