Canopy Family – Sapayoa


Sapayoa by Carlos Bethancourt
Sapayoa, photo by Carlos Bethancourt

The Sapayoa (Sapayoa aenigma) is an elusive bird of the pristine forest streams of the foothills of eastern Panama.  It is a small (14 cm, 5.5 in.) olive-yellow, flycatcher-like bird with a yellowish throat and crown patch.  It has a broad bill which it uses to snatch up flying insects as it sallies from a perch.  Sapayoas live in the lower levels of the forest, almost always along streams.  They are most often seen in pairs and often join mixed feeding flocks with other understory species.  Large, messy hanging nests made from grasses and vegetation are strategically placed 1-2 meters above a stream.  The entrance to the nest is often covered with a leaf.  This range-restricted species can be found from eastern Panama into northwest Colombia and extreme northwestern Ecuador.  

As its name "aenigma" suggests, the Sapayoa is somewhat of a puzzle to taxonomists and its placement has been debated for quite some time.  It is an evolutionarily interesting species; once classified with manakins, with the behavior of flycatchers, it now is placed in its own family, Sapayoidae, and is believed to be most closely related and the only New World representative of the lineages of the Old World broadbills (family Eurylaimidae).  

A most sought-after species indeed, and Panama is one of the best places to find this range-restricted species.  It is one of the target species for our Birds of Canopy Camp Darien birding tour, and please contact us if you are interested in specifically seeing the Sapayoa.  

Searching for Sapayoa…

On September 2, 2014, our team of guides (Carlos Bethancourt, Moyo Rodriguez, Domiciano Alveo and Jenn Sinasac) set out on a search for Sapayoa in the foothills of Nusagandi on the eastern Caribbean Slope of Panama.  Canopy Family resident biologist Jenn Sinasac accounts:

"The morning started out great with a mixed flock of Rufous-winged, Emerald, Tawny-crested and Blue-gray tanagers, Green and Shining honeycreepers, Scarlet-thighed Dacnis, Bananaquit and others.  After a great (but short-lived) thunderstorm we were off to search for the target bird for the day – the elusive Sapayoa.  Twenty minutes of hiking through pristine forest and 2 stream crossings later, we heard the quiet trill we were searching for.  A pair of Sapayoa were tending to their messy grassy nest overhanging the stream.  We quietly watched from a distance as they brought insects to their little ones.  It was very rewarding not only to find the birds but to watch and learn a little bit about their behavior.  We hope to learn more about this special bird and to share it with our guests in Panama."