Birding in Cana, Darien National Park, Panama

Published by Surfbirds Admin (surfbirds AT

Participants: Hernan Arauz


The pristine valley of Cana in the eastern slope of Pirre mountain range in Panama’s Darien National Park is, undoubtedly, the country’s most productive birdwatching site in terms of quantity and quality of avian sightings. It can also be regarded as one of the top 10 sites on the planet.

This powerful statement derives from the fact that professionally led 6 day birding tours to the area usually yield bird lists of over 300 species. The combination of open area habitat, mature second growth and foothill / highland primary forests are unique and located in the most remote and secluded area of Panama, which happens to be the most interesting point of contact for Central and South American avifauna.

Hiking out of Cana to the nearest human settlement (a tiny indigenous village) takes 2 days. This isolation and the protection granted by the Park and its Ranger Station at Cruzamono (a day hike from Cana) are effective in preserving habitat for endangered game species such as Great Curassow, Macaws, White lipped Peccary, Black headed Spider Monkey and Jaguar.

One thing you will notice in Cana is how birds that are rare elsewhere are commonly seen in the nearby trails. As the Station’s number one attraction, Blue and Yellow, Red and Green, Great Green and Chestnut fronted Macaws fly over the camp all day. From the rustic verandah you can see Flame rumped, Crimson backed, and Swallow Tanagers, Golden headed Manakins, and Streaked Antwren all feeding in the shrubs growing in front of the main house. These shrubs also attract several hummingbirds such as Rufous tailed, Snowy bellied, Blue chested, Black throated Mango, Violet capped, Rufous crested Coquette, White necked Jacobin, Green Thorntail, Blue throated Goldentail and Brown Violetear.

The open skies should be watched for soaring King Vultures, Ornate, Black and Black and White Hawk Eagles, White Hawk, and Solitary Eagle. It is also a good place to look for passing White collared Swifts. All bare branches should be checked for Barred Puffbird, Dusky backed Jacamar, Long tailed Tyrant. Low brush near the House abound with Slaty Spinetail, Jet Antbird and Yellow billed Caciques. The top of big trees in the near hills are good places to find the Black tipped Cotinga and the loud Red throated Caracara. Rusty margined and Grey capped Flycatchers are active all day in the creek behind the Station. The trees behind the camp are great for White headed Wren, Cinereous Becard, Black chested Jay and occasionally Laughing Falcon.

Owling is more productive in the late hours of the night (especially in the cloudforest camp). Spectacled, Mottled, Black and White and Least Pygmy Owls are always possibilities. Pauraque are always present in the airstrip at night.

Migrants are a very interesting group of birds in Cana. Previously unreported species seen by the author include Palm Warbler, Dicksissel, Cedar Waxwing and Snail Kite.

The Boca de Cupe Trail
Is the longest of them all and is the only way out by land (you could walk this trail in 2 days). It is essentially a flat trail out of the station for the first 5 miles. Get on it from the Cana airstrip; in the first 100 meters check for Little Cuckoo, White fronted Nunbird, and any of the 5 Trogon species. This trail is great for rarities such as Gray cheeked Nunlet (look for it 1 or 2 feet above the ground at the edge of the trail), Viridian Dacnis (usually accompanying mixed flocks of tanagers and dacnises at fruiting trees), Great Jacamar (easily seen and called in once his mournful whistle is learned), Scarlet browed Tanager (same as Viridian Dacnis), Great Potoo (sleeping high in trees), Fulvous bellied Antpitta (constantly calling from the deep tangles), Ornate Hawk Eagle, as well as army antswarms and the prized Rufous vented Ground Cuckoo.

Trail of the Mine
A 2 km (approx.) loop trail from the main camp to the site where rusting machinery from the last century lies abandoned. This is a great introductory trail with emphasis on the historical importance of the site. It crosses the higher waters of the Cana river (creek). This is a good place for Brownish Twistwing (its 2 strong whistles give his position away), Great Curassow (its grave hum tells of his presence), Crested Guan (noisy in the canopy), Rufous Motmot (in deep ravines and near water), Spotted Barbtail (skulking at low elevation), Dusky faced Tanagers (passing flocks and hard to see well), Striped cheeked Woodpecker (low and middle elevation skulker), and Olivaceous Piculet (low sounding pecking) . Here there are great antswarm possibilities. The author had three Ground Cuckoo encounters here in four tours to the area.

Seteganti Trail
This is an exceptional trail which combines open area, scrub and mature forest. It starts at the Station and ends at the Seteganti River. It is great for Woodpeckers (Red crowned, Black cheeked, Cinnamon, Crimson crested, Lineated, Crimson bellied with its powerful two stroke beat and Red rumped). Other possible rarities include Red billed Scythebill, Brown Violetear, and Green Manakin. The endemic Dusky backed Jacamar is easily seen here perched in exposed Cecropia branches.

Pirre Mountain Trail
This famous trail is better birded coming down than going up. Its 5 miles take approximately 6 hours of uphill hiking through exceptionally rich habitat of foothill and cloudforest. Early encounters on the trail are usually Great Jacamar, White whiskered and Black breasted Puffbirds. Little, Great and Choco Tinamou are present. At the 2,250 ‘ zone look for the rare Yellow Green Grosbeak among other flock attendants such as Sharpbill, Stripe cheeked Woodpecker, Blue Cotinga, Lemon spectacled and Silver throated Tanagers. Twigs over the trail or around bends should always be checked for Tody Motmot, Black capped Pygmy Tyrant, Golden crowned Spadebill. This trail is great for Golden headed and White ruffed Manakins. Yellow eared Toucanet is common in the half of the trail. Large antswarms in this trail have yielded attendance of 3 or more Ground cuckoos with scores of Bicolored, Spotted, Ocellated and Immaculate Antbirds, Black crowned and Scaled Antpittas and several Woodcreepers.

Cloudforest Trail
Begins at 4,000 ‘ at the Cloudforest camp, ends at 4,700. Birding around the camp is very productive. Check the Hotlips (Cephellis, sp) around camp for Pirre Hummingbird, Greenish Puffleg, Green crowned Brilliant. Author recently observed an unknown species of Thorntail with a broad white band across upper chest. Chestnut capped Brush Finches and leaftossers approach the camp very close. Rare Dusky Pigeons feed on Melostome fruit over the camp. The edges of openings should be watch for mixed flocks with Gray and Gold Tanagers, Spot crowned Barbet, Yellow collared Chlorophonia. Scan the midlevel growing Ericacea sp. flowers for the Tooth billed Hummingbird flashing its white tipped tail as he feeds. Bring a tape player and give a try to the Nariño Tapaculo, Thrushlike Mourner and Southern Nightingale Wren. Other possibilities include Rufous breasted Anthrush, Slaty Antwren, Scale crested Pigmy tyrant, Plain Antvireo, and Red headed Barbet. This is an unpredictable trail…we are looking for specialties like Beautiful Treerunner, Golden headed Quetzal, Varied Solitaire and many others.

A trip to Cana is guaranteed to be a lifetime birding highlight. Nowhere in Panama or Central America does nature expresses herself so abundantly than in this valley of birds and unspoiled ecological balance. It is truly a unique situation on the planet to be surrounded by over 2 million acres of pristine rainforest and be the only human presence. Our presence is very limited and we are devoted to the protection and admiration of this natural area. No other lodge in the world puts you so deep in a tropical wilderness as this one.