Friday 30th December 2011

Boquete, Chiriquí – back in the footsteps of GCC

We finally departed the Canal Zone on Tuesday 27th, and drove a long way westwards along the Interamerican Highway, which was of a relatively high standard, although as it is mainly built of concrete, the ride in our Fiat Panda was a little bumpy – but maybe we should not complain as it took my great grandfather George Charles Champion (“GCC”) four days in a very uncomfortable coastal trading boat to complete the journey from Panama City to David, in the westernmost province of Panama, Chiriquí…overland travel was almost impossible back then.

We could not face the entire drive in one day, and consequently we turned off the main highway about halfway to David, at Santiago, and drove 52 kms northwards, climbing into the hills until we reached the mountain village of Santa Fé, where we checked into the imaginatively named Hotel Santa Fé. Although whoever had been responsible for the painting and decorating in this establishment could definitely have done with a little extra training, the welcome we received from our host, Les, and the excellent, and genuinely Panamanian, cuisine was a welcome change from the international fare we had sampled up to this point. That evening we explored the backroads around the village, without much success on the bird front, although a cooperative Amazon Kingfisher we were able to observe from the Puente Bulaba was an exception.

Forested hills near Santa Fe

The following morning we were up and ready for our bird walk with guide César, who appeared at the hotel at 06.00 AM. After a short drive uphill to the settlement of Alto de Piedra, we left the car and began our walk up into the forest. The weather was not very cooperative – an incredibly strong wind, low cloud and intermittent rain, not ideal birding conditions. However, we did soon see two species of toucan, Keel-billed and Collared Aracari. At first the walk was along a muddy track, where I was glad of the wellington/gum-boots I had bought the evening before in the Chinese supermarket in Santa Fé (made in Guatemala!) – getting a smile out of the sales girl in that shop was more than I could manage! César then led us off the track into the forest, and we stumbled over tree roots, plunged down ravines, ploughed through waist-high grass (I was expecting another chigger attack but luckily none came), and hardly saw anything at all. We did manage, with great difficulty, to catch a few fleeting glimpses of a Dull-mantled Antbird at one point, but finally, with the rain setting in in earnest, we headed back to where we had left the car, outside a very windswept café. We nipped in for a quick coffee to warm us up (what a luxury after boiling Panama City and Canal Zone!), but were distressed to find that the manager and a teenage boy were already pretty well inebriated on aguardiente, the local firewater, although it was only 11.00 AM.

Yesterday we headed back down to the main road, and continued on our way towards Chiriquí. The road west of Santiago passes through some incredibly sparsely populated areas of dry woodland and open savannah, and we hardly saw a settlement in perhaps an hour of driving along the highway. However, eventually we entered the province of Chiriquí, and almost immediately found ourselves back on the trail of GCC. We turned off the road to visit the small town of Tolé, where George had his money stolen from his saddle bag on 20th January, 1883, as he recounts in a letter to his mother:

In this trip have had to rough it a good deal, had various casualties – money stolen, sick for a few days (the boy also) and, still, I got back again all right, in spite of all my troubles.

Although I have come to sympathise greatly with GCC, and to admire his tenacity in enduring the incredible hardships he experienced during his four years in Central America, I find it a pity that he could not write with more passion…he must have experienced so many adventures, and yet his letters are far more filled with mundane daily affairs than descriptions of exciting events…perhaps he did not want to worry his mother, or perhaps he was a dry scientist who was not open to adventures – some people just are not: as one of his grandsons once said when asked by one of my aunts, “What adventures have you had recently?”, the crushing answer came: “I do not have adventures.”

Our route continued precisely along his routes, passing by Nancito, San Felix, Remedios and San Lorenzo, until we turned inland towards the mountains, eventually arriving at the tiny village of Caldera, all places where GCC had stayed in 1883. On such a short visit, it is hard to locate the precise houses in which he stayed, especially as we were unable to find any old buildings at all; they were probably constructed of adobe or wood, and have been superseded by more modern buildings since. We do know from his diaries that he stayed with a very hospitable family of Swiss settlers in Caldera, named Buergi, and if I revisit for a longer period in the future, I shall certainly try to track this family down.

Self at the village of Caldera

From Caldera our route took us to the north-west, heading ever closer to the towering bulk of the 3475 m high Volcán Barú, known in my great grandfather’s day simply as Volcán Chiriquí. This mountain, unlike the dramatically cone-shaped volcanoes I have become used to in Guatemala, has several peaks and looks more like the collapsed remains of a once even higher summit, but it nonetheless impresses in its shear bulk. We finally reached the mountain town of Boquete, where we checked into our hotel, the Lacha Country Inn, and so ended the day.

Volcan Baru from a distance

This morning we drove up out of the town, heading for the entrance of the Parque Nacional Volcán Barú, and on the way we ambled our way along a narrow road that snaked its way through open woodland and coffee plantations, running along a fast-flowing river, on whose boulders we were able to locate two of the three species of birds that are specifically adapted to such conditions, the Black Phoebe and the delightfully-named Torrent Tyrannulet, both member of the New World flycatcher family.

Once we had arrived at the national park office, we left the car and headed further on foot, entering cloud forest along the Sendero de los Quetzales, a trail that snakes over a series of ridges on the north side of the volcano, eventually emerging at Cerro Punta, where we intend to stay from 1st January for a few days. Although we did not manage to see a Resplendent Quetzal, thought by some to be the most beautiful bird in the World (and which I have been lucky enough to encounter in both Costa Rica and Guatemala), we did add quite a number of birds to the list, including the third of the three rushing water specialists, the American Dipper. Unlike the Eurasian Dipper, which is dark brown with a prominent white throat, this bird is all lightish grey, but it has exactly the same habits, constantly dipping up and down before plunging into the torrent to search for aquatic insects or small fish. I was particularly pleased to see this bird, as it was this species I had been hunting for with Peter and John Cahill back in Guatemala when I fell in the river, destroying my Nikon Coolpix 4500 camera, soaking my binoculars and various other items…and had failed to see the bird! Now, finally, here it was.

The Sendero de los Quetzales leads through lush cloud-forest

As well as several other interesting bird species, butterflies were flying. There was also quite a significant amount of bamboo, raising my hopes of finding the sister species of Drucina championi, my target in Guatemala for so long, Drucina leonata. Sadly this was not to be, but I have not given up hope as we shall be in the bamboo zone again several times in the coming days.

A remarkable "plant" we found by the trail - Brushia hairensis perhaps!

Walking in cloud forest is a real delight – it is so lush, with epiphytes, bromeliads, lianas and many other trappings of forest in the tropics, and yet the temperature is pleasant and there are far fewer biting insects, although in Santa Fé we were viciously attacked by tiny sandflies known here as chitras, which leave a horribly itchy red swelling for days after their attentions. George ascended on 6th to 8th June 1882 to over 8000 feet on the slopes of the volcano, following tracks made by tapirs through the dense undergrowth.

Beautiful ground cover

After we returned to the car, we drove a short distance to the Finca Lérida, a coffee farm high on the flanks of the volcano. Originally founded in 1900, this delightful place has diversified, opening a restaurant, where we enjoyed a very late lunch, and a very attractive hotel. But it was the gardens that particularly grabbed our attention, with its flowers attracting amazing numbers of hummers, including Green Violet-ear, Scintillant and Snowy-bellied Hummingbirds, and the truly charming Magenta-throated Woodstar (hummingbird names are so evocative!).

Coffee plantation and forest at Finca Lerida

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Monday 26th December 2011

Christmas in the Canopy by the Panama Canal

Following our excellent day on Barro Colorado island, we spent one more night in the gloomy but adequate Davis Suites, and then moved to the much more attractive Shelter Bay Marina Hotel, where we were able to enjoy the swimming pool after sunset, followed by the amazing sight of a Two-toed Sloth walking on the ground (apparently these ungainly animals come down from the trees once a week to perform their ablutions – why they cannot just poop from the branches I am not sure, rather than placing themselves in considerable danger from predators).

The following morning we headed back to the Gatún Locks, where we were treated to the spectacle of the cruise ship Island Princess nosing her way inch by inch into the lock itself, after which we retraced our route to Gamboa, from where we had taken the boat to Barro Colorado a couple of days previously. This time, however, we were due to stay in the village itself, and after a short search, we found our way to our accommodation, the Canopy Bed and Breakfast. This is the poor (well, all things are relative – at $135 per night, the truly poor would not be staying here) man’s little daughter of the renowned Canopy Tower, a disused U.S. radar installation on a hilltop deep in the forest of the Parque Nacional Soberanía, which commands a panoramic view of the Panama Canal and the jungle-covered hills surrounding it. My parents stayed here while on a Wings/Sunbird bird tour in 2008, and had absolutely loved this magical place, but at $1800 for three nights I felt that this was really beyond my budget, especially at this stage in my journey, so the next best option seemed to be the Canopy B and B.

Island Princess entering the Gatun Locks

First impressions did not disappoint, as the bird feeders in the garden were awash with birds: Blue-grey, Palm, Plain-coloured (a misnomer) and Crimson-backed Tanagers, impressive Blue-crowned Motmots and Orange-chinned Parakeets, among many species, were fighting over the bananas that had been put out for them, and almost unbelievably colourful Red-legged Honeycreepers were competing with highly territorial Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds and White-necked Jacobins at the hummingbird feeders.

As it turned out that no dinner was available (contrary to what we had been informed beforehand), we were forced to venture into the enormous Gamboa Tropical Forest Resort, the only option in the Gamboa area, where we enjoyed a Christmas Eve buffet dinner – and we have been there all three nights since!

View from Gamboa Rainforest Resort

Yesterday was one of the most unusual Christmas Days I have experienced, and I must say it felt totally un-Christmassy! We left the accommodation at 06.00 AM, and drove the short distance to the start of the ornithologically world-renowned Pipeline Road, where more than 400 bird species have been recorded, making it perhaps the most bird-rich location in the Neotropics. However, as I have experienced many times, finding birds in thick tropical forest, especially if one is unfamiliar with the calls, can be challenging, to put it mildly. My worst ever performance was at the incredibly rich Jatún Sacha forest reserve in eastern Ecuador, where I once spent an afternoon with my parents many years ago, and we failed to connect with a single bird!

Some "INTESIVE" English teaching needed here!

And Spanish too. Biodiversdad seems to be missing an i!

At first it seemed that our Pipeline experience would be similar, but finally the birds began to show, until eventually we ended up having managed to see some real delights, including Slaty- and White-tailed Trogons, Rufous and Broad-billed Motmots, a pair of magnificent Crimson-crested Woodpeckers at the nest, at least four extraordinary Purple-throated Fruit-crows, a splendid White Hawk perched in a tree, and several really difficult, elusive small birds including Jet and Spotted Antbirds, Russet Antshrike and Checker-throated Antwren…all in all, not a bad haul, considering our lack of knowledge of the “vocalizations” (the current in-term among birders). Apart from a few mountain-bikers, the only other people we met were a Dutch couple who were also staying at the Canopy B and B, and we teamed up with them to organize a visit to the Canopy Tower itself for today. This involved some negotiation, as the cost of the visit was $95 per person, and we then discovered that not only would we end up paying for two breakfasts but only receiving one, but that they were planning to charge us for the transport from the Canopy B and B to the Canopy Tower as well. This I did not agree with at all, and I expressed this clearly to the management, who later called to say that transport would indeed be laid on for us at no extra charge.

Broad-billed Motmot

And so it was that we were picked up at 06.00 AM this morning, and driven the 7 kms or so to the Canopy Tower itself, and it did indeed live up to expectations. Watching the forest awaken from the roof, with its panoramic views over the canopy, with the mist rising over the jungle-covered hills, and the Panama Canal below us, was indeed magical. Keel-billed Toucans were displaying in a bare tree, no less than three different species of parrot were present – Red-lored, Blue-headed and Mealy, a beautiful Blue Dacnis was feeding in a nearby tree, and what appeared to be a tangle of branches turned out to be a Three-toed Sloth. Howler Monkeys were clambering through the branches, and a distant white blob turned out when viewed through the telescopes to be a Semiplumbeous Hawk.

Sunrise from the Canopy Tower

Birding from the Canopy Tower

Canopy Tower

After enjoying this wonderful morning sight, we descended into the tower, where breakfast was provided, after which we were treated to a hummingbird bonanza, with White-vented Plumeleteer, White-necked Jacobins, Blue-chested and Snowy-bellied Hummingbirds all buzzing around the feeders by the entrance. We then set off walking down the entrance road accompanied by Alexis, our expert resident guide, and he certainly came up with the goods! Among the many sightings we experiened were a pair of huge Lineated Woodpeckers, both White-necked and Black-breasted Puffbirds, a brief view of an amazing Red-capped Manakin, Violet-bellied Hummingbird, plus several more obscure flycatchers and woodcreepers. But Alexis had kept the very best till last (as many bird guides do) – just before we boarded the vehicle that would take us back up to the tower (a much appreciated luxury!), he set up his ‘scope on a truly wonderful Great Potoo, a cryptically camouflaged nocturnal bird that looks for all the world like a gnarled, broken-off branch, but which turned out to be “the bird of the day”.

Three-toed Sloth in rapid action!

White-necked Puffbird

And so ended our visit to the Canopy Tower. We much enjoyed it, and Alexis’ guiding was impeccable, but I feel it is important that the so-called “Canopy Family” do not price themselves out of the market, and that Canopy B and B guests like ourselves do not feel totally excluded from the Canopy experience – the B and B is not cheap either, and with an internet connection that does not function, perhaps a little more attention could be paid to these lesser mortals, and they could easily be made to feel a little more integrated into the “family”.

The Great Potoo

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Thursday 22nd December 2011

Beetles, Butterflies and Tarantulas along the Panama Canal

After a rather slow start, Panama has really begun to pick up – to a large extent thanks to our new friends at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, or STRI. We finally made our escape from the capital on Tuesday, driving literally from ocean to ocean in approximately one hour, and crossing the Panama Canal in the process, at the famous Gatún Locks, a true masterpiece of marine engineering. We were joined by my Japanese entomologist friend whom I knew from Guatemala, Jiichiro Yoshimoto, who is on a short trip to Panama and Costa Rica, and who has added a very pleasant extra dimension to this part of the journey.

After negotiating the horrendous traffic on the outskirts of Colón, Panama’s main Caribbean port and a notorious hotbed of poverty and crime, we checked into our spacious but distinctly gloomy accommodation, the Davis Suites, on the former U.S. military base of Fort Davis, which since the pullout of U.S. forces in 1999 has become nothing short of a ghost town, and the Davis Suites, which must have seemed luxurious perhaps in the 1970s, have definitely seen better days.

Once we had checked in, we headed in our hired Fiat Panda, first across the Gatún Locks themselves, where we marveled at the intricate manoeuvres that are required to guide the huge ships that use the canal into these locks, sometimes with literally inches to spare on either side. From here, we turned northward, almost immediately coming to a bridge over the original French canal, which cost more than 22,000 lives and was eventually abandoned after the company involved went bankrupt. The French canal is now a quiet backwater, and it was not long before we realized that what had appeared to be a floating log was in fact a crocodile of considerable proportions.

The tranquil French canal, with huge ships passing beyond on its more modern replacement

We continued onwards through the forest, most of which seems to be well protected in the Parque Nacional San Lorenzo. We finally reached the end of the road at the abandoned U.S. base of Fort Sherman, complete with derelict accommodation blocks, potholed roads and an atmosphere of having been left behind in the last century. However, in the midst of all this desolation, we were astonished to find the thriving Shelter Bay Marina, and even more so, a restaurant catering almost exclusively to the yachting set, but where we were made to feel welcome when we looked in for a very late lunch.

Our evening entertainment involved driving into Colón, to a large shopping complex called Cuatro Altos, which we only reached after negotiating the appallingly potholed ring road, taking the wrong road altogether and finding ourselves heading back towards Panama City, and then conducting a somewhat hair-raising u-turn in order to get ourselves back on track. We did not find any enticing-looking restaurants in Cuatro Altos, although the Supermercado El Rey seemed well-stocked enough.

Yesterday, Wednesday 21st, turned out to be a real highlight. We were joined by Donald Windsor, from STRI, who drove across the isthmus in a Toyota Hilux pickup, found us at the Davis Suites, and then took us over the locks again and then to a forest road accessible only to STRI scientists, where we soon began to find some spectacular butterflies including at least two species of the magnificent large metallic blue Morpho and a huge Caligo, or Owl Butterfly. Jiichiro and Donald were in Seventh Heaven, searching for beetles in the roadside vegetation, while Howler Monkeys uttered their unearthly roars in the trees overhead.

The magnificent Caligo, or Owl Butterfly

After a very pleasant morning, admittedly including a severe drenching whilst walking the Trogon Trail on the Achiote Road, we headed back to Shelter Bay for a well-earned lunch and a short break…..but it was not long before we were back in the pickup for the short drive to the amazingly situated ruins of Fort San Lorenzo, perched as it is high on the cliffs overlooking the mouth of the Rio Chagres. Here we wandered around, marveling at this strategically located former Spanish stronghold, which dates back to the sixteenth century, and at the view of virtually pristine lowland tropical forest that stretches back from the wild, driftwood-strewn beaches here.

Part of the ruins of Fort San Lorenzo, with the Chagres river beyond

Mouth of the Chagres river from Fort San Lorenzo

The team at Fort San Lorenzo

Jiichiro and Donald examining fern leaves for leaf mining beetles

Today has been another absolute highlight. We had to be up by 04.15, which was not an easy task, but better safe than sorry as we had a longish drive to Gamboa, on the shores of the canal, but a long way back towards Panama City, where we were due to catch the boat to the STRI’s reserve of Isla Barro Colorado. This forest-covered island was created when Gatún Lake was flooded during the works to construct the canal, and has been one of the World’s premier tropical forest research stations since 1923.

The 40-minute boat ride out to the island was a pleasure in itself, involving first running along actually in the canal, and then veering off to the north-west, across the lake, which is surrounded by forested peninsulas and low hills. It is amazing to see the huge ships navigating through such wonderful, wild habitat.

A large ship passing by the tropical forest-covered islands

It was not long before we started our hike along one of the trails on the island, in the company of our enthusiastic guide Juan Carlos. And it was certainly to be an entertaining morning – among the many creatures we observed were both Howler and White-faced Capuchin Monkeys, huge trails of army ants, attended by Slaty Antshrikes and Spotted Antbirds (these do not feed on the ants, but rather forage on any other insects which are disturbed by them), a Bright-rumped Attila (a very discreet flycatcher that remains in deep shade), a number of unusual frogs and toads, Pierella luna and Cithaerias menander (two Satyrid butterflies that also only occur in deep forest), and several interesting bee species – Juan Carlos is an entomologist who has studied the bees of Barro Colorado in some detail.

Pierella luna, a deep-forest Satyrid butterfly

An intricately-patterned fungus

A very descriptive sign....

And an accurate one too - base of a giant Ceiba tree

Looking up at the giant Ceiba

But perhaps the prize has to go to the tarantula that was disturbed by Juan Carlos, and then ran out of its hole onto Hélène’s foot, before scuttling off, but not before allowing me to obtain a couple of reasonable shots….although I could not bring myself to approach too closely!

Our friend the tarantula

We finally returned to the scientific station, sweaty and more than ready for the delicious lunch that awaited us, but well satisfied with our morning’s observations. In honour of my great grandfather’s contributions to entomology in Panama, we were only charged only $15 rather than the usual $70 for the privilege of visiting this outstanding open-air laboratory. My sincerest thanks go to all those who facilitated our visit.

Ocelot footprints in the mud

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