Chucantí Private Natural Reserve

This time our conservation photography efforts took us to Cerro Chucantí. This is the highest point in the Majé Mountain Range, reaching over 1,400m (4,600 ft). This tour is commonly known by connoisseurs as "pague por sufrir" a local slang translated as "pay to suffer" given the difficulty to get to the place and to walk through the mountain, specially to move across the steep slope. Fortunately, thanks to our partnership with Advantage Tours Panama (http://advantagepanama.com) our  physical suffering was for free. 

We were invited by the non-governmental organisation Adopt a Panama Rainforest aka ADOPTA (http://adoptapanamarainforest.org), which owns and protect the private reserve. Guido Berguido  discovered the place more than ten years ago in an expedition in search of cloud forest birds. Soon, he discovered that habitat was being lost due to advancing farmers. Therefore, he decided to start promoting the purchase of forest to protect it from future devastation and to allow clearings to be recovered.

The mountain is geographically isolated, which has allowed its fauna and flora to be protected but these populations are still vulnerable to habitat loss, fragmentation, and hunting. Therefore, ADOPTA's initiative is fundamental for the preservation of this ecosystem. This area is very important, and field surveys by different institutions continue to reveal the presence of unique species, some of which are new records for Panama, and others has been previously not described or new to science.

How to get to Chucantí

The first leg of the trip is a 2 hour trip by car from Panama city eastward to Tortí in Chepo District, close to Darién Province limit. Then heading south, entering Darién by a gravel road that goes through Platanilla town and reaching to Río Pavo town about 45 minutes later. Then, the second leg gets interesting, a 4 hour (usually) horse ride to get to the reserve's station. We took our horses in the night and due to rains this track was very complicated, steep muddy hills affected our horses, which on several occasions refused to walk. We had several falls from our horses and had to walk on certain trenches with almost no visibility because there was no moon. Finally, our horse ride finished about 5 hours later and we got to the station at 2:30 am, 10 hours after leaving Panama city, including time to have a fast dinner and prepare the horses and the cargo. The reserve's station is  a set of very comfortable cabins, with kitchen, bathrooms, nice beds, water and an electric plant.

That's not all, the station is located at 800m (2,600 ft) and from the station you can walk a trail that surrounds the reserve, taking at least 9 hours to walk it all but we were not aspiring for that much. Our plan was to walk the next morning to the mountain's summit with several targets on mind, birds ranging from inhabitants of lowland tropical rainforest, to mid-elevation and montane forest, and finally to cloud forest. Black-crowned Antpitta, Tody Motmot, Yellow-eared Toucanet, Violet-throated Toucanet, Slaty-backed Nightingale-thrush, Varied Solitaire, and Beautiful Treerunner (national endemic) were among these expected highlights. We were also expecting to observe and photograph mammals especially Black Spider Monkeys or any other species that are present in the reserve like Tapir, Howler Monkey, White-headed Capuchin, Puma, Jaguar, Giant Anteater, Northern Tamandua.

On the second day our plan was to stay on mid-elevation to leave the reserve in the afternoon.  In the end, we didn't reach the summit due to rain but we were able to observe several of our targets. Unfortunately, as usual, observations were way better than photographs, and weather restricted much of what we could do. Our departure was delayed by rain too, and once again we had to ride horses by night, at least this time we had moonlight.

Photographic results

Birds

The first day was not great in quantity but in quality. We only got two pictures from the forest but was a great way to start, we think.

Black-crowned Antpitta (Pittasoma michleri) is a spectacular species restricted to a narrow belt from northeastern Costa Rica south to northwestern Colombia. Long considered an antpitta, genetic studies now indicate that the genus Pittasoma is closely aligned with gnateaters in the Conopaphagidae family. The gnateaters is a small family of insectivorous birds of tropical forest understory confined mainly to South America. The Black-crowned Antpitta is the largest member of this family and the only one to occur in Central America

Black-crowned Antpitta is little known in Colombia, but  is seen in the adjacent Darién Province of Panama. In Panama it's rare on entire Caribbean slope and on Pacific slope from eastern Panamá Province eastward to Darién, and in foothills on western Panamá (Altos del María, El Valle, etc.); to 1,250 m (4,100 ft). It's found on ground in forest, often at army ant swarms.


White Hawk (Pseudastur albicollis) occurs in upper, middle and sometimes lower levels of forest. Although fairly common, this is the first time we observe it in middle level.


From the station and along our climb to the top we were able to observe or hear some of our targets but we were not able to get photos. Some of the observations were: Northern Tamandua, Mantled Howler Monkeys, Black-headed Spider Monkey, White-headed Capuchins, Tayra, Tody Motmot, Varied Solitaire, Slaty-backed Nightingale-thrush, Chestnut-capped Brush Finch, Black-faced Antthrush, Chestnut-backed Antbird, Black-and-White Hawk-Eagle, Black Hawk-Eagle, King Vulture, Barred Hawk, Scale-crested Pygmy Tyrant, Great Curassow, Green Honeycreeper, Scarlet-thiged Dacnis, White-ruffed Manakin, Central American Pygmy Owl.


At the station we were able to get some pictures of more common birds especially some migrants, from a deck that gets you to eye-label to the birds.

Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus)

Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula)

 Fulvous-vented Euphonia (Euphonia fulvicrissa)

 Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea)

Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra)

White-vented Plumeleteer (Chalybura buffonii) 

On the second day we stayed at mid-elevations and focused on trying to get the Tody Motmot (in vain) but we were persistent enough to get more pictures:

Ocellated Antbird (Phaenostictus mcleannani) is a monotypic species of Antbird within the genus Phaenostictus and found in Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama. Its natural habitat is the understory of moist lowland forests, foothill forest, and tall secondary growth woodlands.  They feed primarily on insects and arthropods, sometimes small lizards. Most of its prey is obtained by following trails of army ants, which flush the prey out from hiding places. One such army ant species is Eciton burchellii, featured here in our blog. The ocellated antbird is considered an obligate follower of army ants, seldom foraging away from swarms. Amongst the species of antbirds and other army ant followers (such as tanagers and woodcreepers) it is usually a dominant species. 

In Panama it's uncommon on entire Caribbean slope and on Pacific slope from eastern Panamá Province eastward. It's found in lower levels of forest.


Another army ant follower we found was the Ruddy Woodcreeper (Dendrocincla homochroa) even we didn't find ants. This species breeds in premontane humid forest in lowlands and foothills up to 1,600 m (5,200 ft), and also in adjacent semi-open woodland and clearings from southern Mexico to northern Colombia and extreme northern Venezuela. In Panama it's rare in lowlands and uncommon in foothills and lower highlands, in different parts of the country, found in lower and middle levels of forest.

White-breasted Wood-Wren (Henicorhina leucosticta) is a resident breeding species from central Mexico to northeastern Peru and Surinam. In Panama it's common on entire Caribbean slope and Pacific slope from Canal Area eastward, and in western Chiriquí and locally in foothills on western Pacific slope. Forages actively in low vegetation or on the ground in pairs in family groups. It mainly eats insects and other invertebrates.


Black-striped Woodcreeper (Xiphorhynchus lachrymosus)


Black-throated Trogon (Trogon rufus) - female


Red-capped Manakin (Ceratopipra mentalis) - male



Mammals

We were able to observe three species of monkeys: Howler, Spider and White-headed. Also as listed before: a Tayra and a Northern Tamandua.

Mantled Howler Monkeys (Alouatta palliata)
Black-headed Spider Monkey (Ateles fusciceps) is a species from Central and South America, found in Colombia, Nicaragua and Panama. The black-headed spider monkey is one of the largest New World monkeys. The head and body length, excluding tail, typically ranges between 39.3 and 53.8 cm (15.5 and 21.2 in). The prehensile tail is between 71.0 and 85.5 cm (28.0 and 33.7 in). It is arboreal and diurnal.

The black-headed spider monkey is considered to be critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) due to an estimated population loss of more than 80% over 45 years, from hunting and human intrusion on its range of habitation.

Reptiles and amphibians

The Turnip-tailed Gecko (Thecadactylus rapicauda) known locally as Geco Escorpión (Scorpion Gecko) is a species of gecko widely distributed from Mexico southward through Central America and into South America as far south as Brazil, and on many islands in the Lesser Antilles.

It is a large gecko (Panama's largest) reaching a length of 225 mm. Its color varies from pale to dark gray to deep orange. Its name comes from its swollen tail, which is used to store fat. It also waves its tail as a sign of aggression (hence the scorpion Spanish name), and can shed its tail to distract predators. They are nocturnal in nature and are frequently found 5–30 feet up the trunks of palms and trees but they can be found in buildings too.

This species is distinguished from other species by very large digital pads, webbed digits and retractable claws on the front and rear legs. Among the neotropical geckos it differs in having expanded pads on the basis of all digits. Despite local folklore, this species is not venomous nor poisonous.


Green and Black Poison Dart Frog (Dendrobates auratus) is a brightly colored member of the order Anura native to Central America and northwestern parts of South America. This species has also been introduced to Hawaii. It is one of the most variable of all poison dart frogs next to Dendrobates tinctorius and some Oophaga spp. It is considered to be of least concern from a conservation standpoint by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The green-and-black poison frog, while not the most toxic poison dart frog, is still a highly toxic animal. The very small amount of poison the frog possesses is still enough to make a human heart stop beating. Like most poison dart frogs, however, the green-and-black poison dart frog will only release its poison if it feels threatened, and wild specimens can be handled if the human holding it is calm and relaxed. Scientists believe that the green-and-black poison frog actually takes its poison from the mites it feeds on and a change in alimentation will change toxicity.

The green-and-black poison frog typically has mint-green coloration; however, they can also be forest, lime, emerald green, turquoise, pale yellow, or even cobalt blue. Many also have splotches of dark colors, ranging from wood brown to black. The green-and-black poison frog is one of the most variable of all poison frogs in appearance. It is semiarboreal, hunting, courting, and sleeping in the trees, but as it is a small frog, it cannot jump far enough to span the distances between trees, so it returns to the ground to travel. To assist in climbing, the mint poison dart frog has small, sucker-like discs on the ends of its toes, which create a slight suction as the frogs climb, making their grip mildly adhesive.


We also saw small Hognosed Pit-vipers (Porthidium nasutum) aka "Patoca" that came to the door of one of the cabins two nights in a row. Sadly the person that found them killed them before I could make photos. We do not endorse these actions and would have preferred the snakes were relocated to the forest. 

Arthropods

On the final moments of our stay we enjoyed making macro photos of some little animals found in the garden of the station:


Wasp (Apocrita suborder)

 Argiope spider (Argiope sp.)

Argiope spiders are commonly known by lot of names like black and yellow garden spider, zipper spider, writing spider, cross spiders, X spider, or priest spider. The average orb web is practically invisible, the very easily visible pattern of banded silk made by Argiope is pure white, and some species make an "X" form, or a zigzag type of web (often with a hollow centre). Argiope are harmless to humans, as is the case with most garden spiders, they eat insects. They might bite if grabbed, but other than for defense they do not attack large animals.

Ant and Crab Spider (Formicidae and Thomisidae families)

Crab Spider (Thomisidae families)

Crab spider refers most often to the familiar species of "flower crab spiders", though not all members of the family are limited to ambush hunting in flowers. The common name refers to a fancied resemblance to crabs, or to the way such spiders hold their two front pairs of legs. They have bodies that are flattened and angular.

Thomisidae do not build webs to trap prey, though all of them produce silk for drop; some are wandering hunters and ambush predators. Some species sit on or beside flowers or fruit, where they grab visiting insects. Crab spiders use their powerful front legs to grab and hold on to prey while paralysing it with a venomous bite. The spiders of Thomisidae are not known to be harmful to humans.


 Lynx Spiders (Oxyopidae family)

Lynx spider is the common name for any member of the family Oxyopidae. Most species make little use of webs, instead spending their lives as hunting spiders on plants. Many species frequent flowers in particular, ambushing pollinators, much as crab spiders do. Others crouch in wait, camouflaged on plant stalks or bark. Most of them have large spiny bristles on their legs and in many species the bristles form almost a basket-like structure that may assist in confining the prey that they grasp, and protect the spider from its struggles.