What WC Did On His Vacation: Harpy Eagles


Crikey. WC leaves the internet for a few days and returns to find that Gov. Mike “Sucker Punch” Dunleavy has kicked Alaska and the Alaska economy in the fork. You have to wonder how many times Alaskans will elect a governor from Wasilla before they learn their lesson. It’s too much to deal with right now; let’s talk about birds instead.

Harpy Eagles, Male on left, dark morph female on right, Darien National Park, Darien Privince, Panama

Harpy Eagles, Male on left, female on right, Darien National Park, Darien Province, Panama

Most folks kick back a little bit on their winter vacations. Maybe soak up some sun in Hawai’i. Maybe take the kids to Disneyland.

WC and Mrs. WC chase birds. In this specific case, Harpy Eagles. One of the largest and most powerful raptors in the world, Harpy Eagles are very hard to see. It’s not just that big birds need very large hunting grounds; habitat loss is driving Harpy Eagles to extinction in the wild.

For many years, Darien National Park, at the easterly edge of Panama, was too dangerous for entry. A combination of narcotrafficking, Columbian rebels and tropical diseases left the area largely wild. But the Panamanian authorities have cracked down on the narcos. Columbia reached a truce with FARC, the Columbian rebel group and with the folks carrying the diseases gone the disease vectors are broken, reducing the risk of the tropics’ usual list of horror show nasties. ANCON has run a couple of ecolodges on the edge of the Darien for a few yers. But it’s only in the last few years that Darien’s birding has really opened up.

And it’s wonderful news for birders and nature lovers, because the much of the Darien, and Darien National Park in particular, are relatively undisturbed. Which means that there are still Harpy Eagles nesting there.

Not that they are easy to find. The best place to see Harpy Eagles is on a nest; from laying the egg to fledging the nestling is a three month process, so for an extended period you have one to three Harpy Eagles consistently in one place. The nest WC visited involved an extended drive to Yaviza, at the Chucunaque River.

Riding a dugout canoe down the Chucunaque River

Riding a dugout canoe down the Chucunaque River

There you board a dugout canoe powered by an outboard engine and wind your way along the river to El Real, the oldest continuously occupied community in Panama. Then you climb into the bed of a much-abused 4×4 for a teeth-rattling ride along a primitive road to the edge of Darien National Park.

Darien National Park at last. At the trailhead.

Darien National Park at last. At the trailhead.

Finally you walk in the steamy tropical heat – 90° or more and 90% humidity – along a trail through old growth jungle in Darien National Park, to the base of a hill, a limestone ridge. Then up – steeply up – the hill another 1.5 miles or so.

Harpy Eagle Nest. Mom on the left; the chick in natal down on the right.

Harpy Eagle Nest. Mom on the left; the chick in natal down on the right.

And there it is, just across a small valley. A quite large nest in the fork of a massive tree, with one nestling and his mother present. We hadn’t been there long and the father flew in with food. There are strict rules for viewing and great care is taken not to disturb the birds, who in fact went about their business with barely a glance at us.

One of the rarest big birds in the world. Right there in front of you. If you love nature, it’s an absolute thrill. If you are a birder, it’s off the charts. Special thanks to our Embera Indian guides for making it possible.

WC has been lucky enough to see the Scarlet Ibis return to roost at Caroni Swamp in Trinidad; watch the macaws on the clay lick in Amazonian Peru; watch polar bear cubs play in the channels near Kaktovik. This probably was the best yet.

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