Quest for the Harpy Eagle
About a year ago, I had a client accompany me to Panama and while she was overwhelmed with the teeming bird life in every corner of the country, she remarked about how her goal was to see a Harpy Eagle. Once a regular visitor throughout the central lowlands of Panama, this magnificent species is now considered near threatened on the global scale and is thought to be extirpated from many areas within its traditional Central American range. The reasons are many, but hunting and habitat loss top the list. In any case, although I have personally seen Harpy Eagles in parts of Panama, I knew that the only way to get a reliable sighting would be to visit a nest site. And so a year of planning began: working with the Panamanian government for permits, communicating with Panamanian locals familiar with Harpy nesting sites and making a couple of reconnaissance trips to firm up the details on a limited edition Antbird Tours offering.
Panama is an overwhelming country. Although small (roughly the size of South Carolina), there are close to 1,000 bird species that can be found by poking around. Of course, in the tropics a bird's distribution is strongly tied to the moisture regime and altitude of an area. Small changes in topography can yield large changes in representative bird species. This, and the staggering diversity of insects and plants leads to a tremendous amount of "species packing"...essentially getting as many species into an area as feasibly possible given the resource abundance.
Harpy Eagles are birds of the lowland rainforest. Warm, wet areas stretching from Southern Mexico to Southern Brazil are capable of supporting this massive bird of prey...provided there is enough in-tact habitat. In Panama, the best place to find a Harpy is the expansive lowland rainforest of the Darien National Park. This part of the country is not birded heavily, but holds some of the most amazing birds in all of Panama. It is here that effort expended on the part of the birder pays off big time.
On January 7th, I took a small group to my favorite country. Yes, we planned on seeing as many birds as we could. Yes, we would visit all parts of the country and spend hours each day logging miles and species. But, we had one overriding goal: to see a Harpy Eagle. The road to the Harpy Eagle began long before we stepped on Panamanian soil. The trip required obtaining permits for access and correspondence with a small army of people. But, once in motion, the trip chugged smoothly through the country.
After three solid days of birding the Central Panamanian lowlands and making our way East to the literal end of the road, we arrived in Yaviza. After furnishing our permits and passports, we made our way to our lodging and prepared for the next morning. A 3:30am wake up had us stumbling into a wooden dugout canoe in the dark and motoring down the Rio Chucunaque and Rio Tuira. At first light, we made our way off the boat and into the dark rainforest. Here, among the giant fig, avocado and cuipo trees, we found the nest of a very rare Crested Eagle. This smaller cousin to the Harpy has an even smaller range and population and finding its nest was a real treat. This rare eagle is on many birder's lists because it is so elusive. And yet, in the waxing light of a January morning, among the most impressive of rainforests, my group sat and watched as one of these magnificent birds fed within its nest.
Making our way back to the river, we motored to a new spot and, with the use of a truck, a pack horse and our own two feet, we made our way to a Harpy Nest.
Seeing a Harpy Eagle doesn't change anything: the world continues spinning, mosquitoes continue buzzing in your ear, sweat continues to drip from your brow. But nothing FEELS the same. Laying eyes on this majestic bird causes a seismic shift in your psyche. Even if you are surrounded by other people, when you lock eyes with a Harpy Eagle, it is just you and the bird...everything else ceases to exist.
On January 10, 2019, that seismic shift happened for every member of my group. And I got the privilege of watching it happen. This is why I do what I do. When I get others to appreciate the world around them a little more and want to do something to protect it, I have made a difference. My job is easy...I just need to show them the bird. The bird will do the rest.