Birding Without Borders

Day 105: The Sapayoa

In pursuit of an enigmatic bird.

April 15, 2015, The Eastern Panama Foothills — In the hills of eastern Panama lives a strange little bird called, simply, the Sapayoa. Nobody knows how it got there, or really what it is. The Sapayoa doesn’t look like much: It’s drab olive-yellow, a bit longer and more slender than a sparrow, and it has an unusually wide beak. Gringos often mispronounce the name as “Sapayoya” (just try saying it three times fast!). The bird perches inconspicuously within the understory of dark, humid, foothill forests, and it has a reputation for being rare and difficult to encounter. Ornithologists used to think that the Sapayoa was related to manakins, but recent DNA analysis suggests that it is, very weirdly, most closely aligned with a group of birds called broadbills which live in Asia. The Sapayoa is currently classified as the lone representative of its own family. Its scientific name says it all: Sapayoa enigma.

Guido mentioned that we had a chance of seeing one this morning, but I dismissed the thought. Birds like the Sapayoa don’t come easy! We were joined today by Guido’s friend Jan, a Panamanian gastroenterologist and enthusiastic birder; and a local guide from the cabins where we stayed last night. After breakfast, the four of us hiked down a steep, muddy path into the humid foothills.

Noah's view of the Sapayoa in Panama's eastern foothills. Photo: Noah Strycker

We suddenly heard the Sapayoa’s call (a distinctive, repetitive buzz) in a wet ravine near a makeshift log bridge. Instead of playing a tape to lure the bird in, Guido suggested we stalk it through the forest—less chance of scaring it that way. He led the way through the undergrowth until the Sapayoa appeared in front of us, practically glowing in shades of dull yellow. None of us could believe our luck! The Sapayoa is a true birder’s bird: Perhaps underwhelming to look at, but overwhelming to see.

New birds today: 14

Year list: 2029

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