Bald Eagle Photo credit: iStock By Mike Unwin It is mid-morning in Darién National Park, Panama, and I’m wilting in the rainforest heat. Three hours ago, with the ramshackle border town of Yaviza still asleep, we had boarded our motorised dugout and nudged out into the swift, dark current. Now the humid air hums with insects and sweat trickles down my back. Suddenly a flurry of wingbeats has us peering up into the canopy. And there she is: a female harpy eagle, perched high in the almendro tree, signature crest defiantly erect. A lifeless sloth dangles from meat-hook talons as large as a tiger’s. She’s an awesome sight: a fitting national bird for Panama. At her chick’s plaintive cheeps, she starts to tear at the unfortunate prey. Only now do I dare raise my camera. There is something irresistibly alluring about eagles: the predatory power, the imperious glare, those magnificent wings lifting them high and beyond our reach. They are, in a way, the avian equivalent of big cats, and it is small wonder that they have so long served as icons of pride and military might, from the Roman legions to the United States air force. The golden eagle alone is the national emblem of five nations. For the traveller, eagles also mean exciting places. These birds’ basic needs – large tracts of unspoilt land, with plentiful prey and few human threats – mean that if you’re watching one, you are generally somewhere pretty impressive. My eagle memories are inseparable from their locations: an African fish eagle plucking a bream from beside my canoe on the serene Zambezi; wedge-tailed eagles combing the red-rock canyons of Australia’ Northern Territory; a giant Steller’s sea eagle circling my zodiac against Kamchatka’s snow-capped volcanos. Each new sighting brings the same thrill: the bird seems
Bald Eagle Photo credit: iStock By Mike Unwin It is mid-morning in Darién National Park, Panama, and I’m wilting in the rainforest heat. Three hours ago, with the ramshackle border town of Yaviza still
Yellow-headed Gecko Gonatodes albogularis Photo by Jenn Sinasac The attractive Yellow-headed Gecko is a diurnal, forest dwelling species of dwarf gecko native to the warm regions of Central and South America. It is small, only a mere 7-9 cm long. The Yellow-headed Gecko exhibits strong sexual dimorphism; the males have yellowish heads with brilliant blue facial markings, blue-gray bodies and a black tail with a white tip. Females are generally a mottled gray-brown overall. Yellow-headed Geckos feed on terrestrial insects and small arthropods on the forest floor. They live in tropical dry and humid primary and secondary forests and open areas, are often found around stone walls and retreat to crevices and holes for cover from potential predators. They nest at the bases of trees, in buttress roots. The female lays 1 egg, burying it in a dry area to incubate, and has several clutches per year. They can be seen around the base of the Canopy Tower, and are rather common at the Canopy Camp. Fun Fact: Yellow-headed Geckos do not have suction lamellae on their toes like many other geckos, so they cannot stick to smooth, vertical surfaces. However, they have thin, rough skin on their toes, and can run very fast!
Yellow-headed Gecko Gonatodes albogularis Photo by Jenn Sinasac The attractive Yellow-headed Gecko is a diurnal, forest dwelling species of dwarf gecko native to the warm regions of Central and South America. It is
Scaly Tree Ferns Photo by Jerry & Linda Harrison Scaly Tree Ferns look like something out of Jurassic Park—in fact, they are ancient plants and originated in the late Jurassic. They are true ferns (Class Pteridopsida) that are rather tree-like in appearance, with trunk-like stems. The world’s tallest tree ferns are in this family, and can grow up to 20 m tall. The fronds are some of the largest in the plant kingdom, reaching 3-4 m in some species. The pinnate leaves are covered in scales and hairs; “sori” or spore clusters are located on the undersides of the leaves. They are mostly terrestrial (although some are epiphytic). Tree ferns growing in the forest understory have adapted fronds allowing chlorophyll to photosynthesize more efficiently in lower light conditions. In the family Cyatheaceae, there are 13 genera; the genus Cyathea is the largest and contains approximately 500 species, although the exact number of species is unknown. Scaly tree ferns are found in wet lowlands to mid-elevations in tropical regions around the world, and there are more than 40 species of Cyathea in Panama. From the Greek: “Cyathea” comes from the Greek word “kyatheion”, meaning “little cup”, referring to the cup-shaped sori on the fronds.
Scaly Tree Ferns Photo by Jerry & Linda Harrison Scaly Tree Ferns look like something out of Jurassic Park—in fact, they are ancient plants and originated in the late Jurassic. They are true
Mottled Owl Ciccaba virgata Photo by Uwe Speck The Mottled Owl is a medium-sized owl of tropical America. It is dark overall, with a dark mottled brown and buff head, back and wings. It has a buffy belly and breast with heavy streaking, and vertical bars on the chest and throat. It has dark brown eyes surrounded by a light gray-brown facial disk with buffy streaking and incomplete buffy border. A pale morph also occurs in parts of its range, usually in drier habitats. It lacks ear tufts, therefore has a large, round-headed appearance. It has bare, buff-colored feet and a yellowish bill. Males and females are similar in appearance but show a high degree of sexual dimorphism when it comes to size—females (35 cm in length) are larger than males (28 cm in length). The Mottled Owl can be found in a variety of habitats, but typically prefer forest and woodlands, where they occupy the lower and middle levels of the forest. They are strictly nocturnal, but can be found roosting during the day, usually concealed in dense vine tangles and thick undergrowth—listening for smaller birds mobbing and scolding can often lead to a roosting Mottled Owl! Like all owls, they are predators—they catch and kill small mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians and even large insects to eat. They forage by waiting on a perch then swooping down to catch prey. Due to their nocturnal behavior, Mottled Owls have excellent eyesight designed for low-light conditions and very acute hearing. They make a variety of calls, from a series of muffled hoots to cat-like screeches. Mottled Owls usually nest in a tree cavity, but will occasionally take over suitable nests of other birds. The female lays 1-2 white eggs, and incubates them for 28-30 days. While incubation is solely done
Mottled Owl Ciccaba virgata Photo by Uwe Speck The Mottled Owl is a medium-sized owl of tropical America. It is dark overall, with a dark mottled brown and buff head, back and wings.
Common Tent-making Bat Uroderma bilobatum The Common Tent-making Bat is a common forest species of the lowlands of Central and South America. It is a member of the family Phyllostomidae, the New World leaf-nosed bats, a large family that includes vampire bats, fruit-eating bats, nectar bats and spear-nosed bats, although a majority of the species are insectivorous. They are a medium-sized bat, 59-69 mm in length with a weight of 13-20 grams. They have a gray-brown coat with a pale white stripe down their back, and a U-shaped tail membrane. Their face has a fleshy noseleaf and 4 distinct white stripes. The “noseleaf” is believed to aid in echolocation, to help direct the sounds they emit. Tent-making bats are mainly frugivorous, but will occasionally supplement their diet with insects, pollen and nectar. They are best known for their unique behavior of making “tents” out of large leaves. They bite through the midrib or vein of a large leaf so that it folds over into an inverted-V-shaped shelter. Banana and palm leaves are commonly used. The bats roost under the leaves, which provide protection from rain, sun and wind. A single leaf may house several bats, and they roost in groups from 2-59 individuals. A single “tent” may be used for up to 60 days. They are found from Mexico south to Peru, Bolivia and Brazil, in lowland forest and can be found roosting in palms near the Canopy Tower and Canopy Camp Darien. Did you know? Common Tent-making Bats emit calls at very low frequencies, often not detectable by standard bat detectors. For this reason, they are sometimes called “whispering bats.”
Common Tent-making Bat Uroderma bilobatum The Common Tent-making Bat is a common forest species of the lowlands of Central and South America. It is a member of the family Phyllostomidae, the New World
Rush-like Flatsedge Cyperus luzulae Common in wetter areas around Panama, the Rush-like Flatsedge is a clump-forming, grass-like perennial member of the sedge family, Cyperaceae. It typically grows 20-50 cm tall, with the tallest plants reaching up to 1 meter in height. The main stem of the plant grows from short rhizomes (rootstalks). Leaves are linear, 3-7 mm wide. The bracts surrounding the inflorescence are leaflike as well, growing to 30 cm in length. Numerous spikelets grow in dense clusters approximately 1 cm in diameter, bearing up to 10 or more whitish flowers. Fruits are smooth, oblong capsules 1 mm in length and light brown in color. Cyperus luzulae flowers and fruits throughout the year. The Rush-like Flatsedge has a number of useful purposes by humans. The crushed rhizome is used as an aphrodisiac. The strong, flexible stems can be used as twine. Parts of the plant (likely the rhizome) is mixed with Genipa americana (Jagua – family Rubiaceae) and is rubbed on hair to encourage and maintain healthy hair growth! This distinct plant prefers wet habitats, and can be found commonly in marshes and swamps, wet fields and stream edges. It is found in the lowlands and foothills up to 1400 m. elevation, in tropical moist forest and premontane moist forest. Cyperus luzulae has a wide distribution throughout the tropical regions of Central and South America. The genus Cyperus contains approximately 700 species of sedges distributed worldwide. The species name “luzulae” comes from “Luzula,” a genus of rushes (family Juncaceae) which this species resembles.
Rush-like Flatsedge Cyperus luzulae Common in wetter areas around Panama, the Rush-like Flatsedge is a clump-forming, grass-like perennial member of the sedge family, Cyperaceae. It typically grows 20-50 cm tall, with the tallest
Yellow-tailed Oriole Icterus mesomelas The Yellow-tailed Oriole is a striking black and yellow bird of Panama’s swampy lowlands. It is easy to identify as it is the only oriole with prominent yellow in the tail. It is a medium-sized oriole (22 cm in length) with a relatively long tail. It has a golden yellow hood, breast, underparts and rump, contrasting with a black bib, back and wings. It has a distinctive yellow “epaulet” on its wings (a band on the lesser and median wing coverts). It’s central tail feathers are black and outer tail feathers yellow, and the tail appears completely yellow if viewed from below. Sexes are similar in appearance. Young birds are similar in appearance to the adults, but have olive-green backs instead of solid black. The Yellow-tailed Oriole is usually found near water, residing in woodland habitats and open areas, swampy lowlands and marshes, shrubby fields and clearings with trees. It is not found in closed canopy forest. It often hides in dense undergrowth, Heliconia stands and thickets, and is often first detected by its sweet song, a series of short, mellow notes, warbles and trills, repeated frequently. It gives a clear “chup-cheer” call. Yellow-tailed Orioles feed primarily on insects, but will also occasionally eat fruits (especially fruits from the Gumbo-Limbo tree) and nectar. Birds usually forage in pairs or small groups. Yellow-tailed Orioles are solitary breeders, unlike some other members of its family. They build a deep but thin nest 2 meters off the ground, usually by a stream nestled in thorny scrub. Eggs are white with dark blotches. Three eggs are laid per clutch. Eggs hatch in 13 days, and the young fledge at 14 days old. In Panama, the Yellow-tailed Oriole breeds from April to June. The Yellow-tailed Oriole has a wide distribution in
Yellow-tailed Oriole Icterus mesomelas The Yellow-tailed Oriole is a striking black and yellow bird of Panama’s swampy lowlands. It is easy to identify as it is the only oriole with prominent yellow in
Orion Cecropian Historis odius This captivating, large butterfly has a wingspan of 11 cm (4 in.) and calls attention with its bright orange upperparts when flying. However, at rest, they fold their wings up, revealing their leaf-like brown underside, even showing a vertical line reminiscent of the vein of a leaf, providing excellent camouflage. They are very closely associated with cecropia trees—from laying their eggs on its leaves to perching high on its branches, all life stages of this species associates with cecropia trees. From the treetops, it flies down to the ground to feed on fermenting forest fruits, earning this species its nickname, the “Stinky Leafwing.” Males are attracted to rocky overhangs, riverbanks and muddy wallows to pick up dissolved minerals in the water. Keep an eye out for this common butterfly at eye level from the Observation Deck of the Canopy Tower, and at the fruit feeders at the Canopy Lodge and Canopy Camp. Strange defenses: The larval caterpillars produce frass-chains, which they dangle off the edges of cecropia leaves where they are resting to avoid being eaten by the resident Azteca ants.
Orion Cecropian Historis odius This captivating, large butterfly has a wingspan of 11 cm (4 in.) and calls attention with its bright orange upperparts when flying. However, at rest, they fold their wings
Sensitive Plant Mimosa pudica The Sensitive Plant is a creeping herb in the Fabaceae family. It has long, prickly stems that can grow to 1.5 meters in length, and has compound, bipinnate leaves with 10-26 leaflets. The round, pale pink flowers arise from the leaf axils. The fruits are clusters of 2-8 pods, 1-2 cm long, containing pale brown seeds with hard seed coats. The Sensitive Plant is one of the more “entertaining” and memorable plants in a tropical forest—it demonstrates “rapid plant movement”, in which the leaves fold inward and stems droop when touched or disturbed by warming, blowing or shaking. This behavior is known as seismonasty. It is believed to aid in predator protection from harmful herbivores. They reopen shortly after the disturbance has passed. It grows in shady areas, forests, edges and roadsides, and is pollinated by wind and insects. The Sensitive Plant is native to Central and South America, and is now distributed throughout the tropics worldwide; it is considered invasive in some areas it has been introduced. It is common in the forests around the Canopy Tower and Canopy Lodge. Did you know? The latin name “pudica” means “shy,” “bashful” or “shrinking.”
Sensitive Plant Mimosa pudica The Sensitive Plant is a creeping herb in the Fabaceae family. It has long, prickly stems that can grow to 1.5 meters in length, and has compound, bipinnate leaves
White-shouldered Tanager Tachyphonus luctosus This handsome tanager is one that you are likely to encounter in mixed feeding flocks in the rainforests of Panama. It is one of Panama’s smaller tanager species, at 13 cm in length and weighing only up to 15 grams. The male is mostly black with a conspicuous white wing patch, giving the species its name. The female, on the other hand, looks nothing like her mate; she has an olive back, yellow underparts and a gray head. There are 5 described subspecies of the White-shouldered Tanager, and a fair bit of variation in this species in Panama: the western races have smaller wing patches. Males in Chiriqui province have a yellow crown and pale eye, and females in Chiriqui have more of an olive-colored head, showing less of a contrast with the body. The base of the mandible is a silvery-gray in all races. Immature birds are similar to females but browner, with more olive underparts. Young males start changing at the first breeding season, and will have a gradual blotchy appearance until they acquire their glossy black adult plumage. White-shouldered Tanagers can be found in forest and woodlands, forest edge and prefer secondary growth and dense vegetation. They forage in all levels of the forest, but are most often found in the mid-story and sub-canopy. They forage in pairs and family groups. They eat primarily insects but also small fruits on occasion. They are active foragers, gleaning insects and occasionally small fruits from thin branches and tops of leaves. They give squeaky “chew” and “chut” notes, as well as a thin “tsit.” Songs vary geographically in Panama, they are generally melodic and repetitive. Males defend their territories and engage in courtship display by flaring their white shoulder patches. White-shouldered Tanagers breed from February to
White-shouldered Tanager Tachyphonus luctosus This handsome tanager is one that you are likely to encounter in mixed feeding flocks in the rainforests of Panama. It is one of Panama’s smaller tanager species, at