Monday 9th January 2012

Last post from Panama – the end, and perhaps a new beginning??

Following our night in Penonomé on the way back from Chiriquí to the capital, I awoke in the dawn to a monotonous “hoo hoo hoo” call – unmistakably a Ferruginous Pygmy Owl. I quickly pulled on some outdoor clothes and crept out into the street, where I was immediately able to pinpoint the sound, which was coming from some small trees at the end. Unfortunately, however, as I attempted to quietly approach in the hope of seeing the bird, suddenly a small dog leapt up from its guard position in front of the last house, and it began to bark like fury, thereby setting off all the other dogs in the neighbourhood, the owl shut up and all hope of a new bird on my Panama list subsided!

From Penonomé, we took the Interamerican Highway again for the last 100 kms or so to the capital, where we returned the Fiat Panda to Albrook Airport (getting lost in the process!), although in fact we then had to drive on to the main office of the agency in the city in order to finalise the paperwork – luckily Luisa, the girl from the agency, accompanied us as I would NEVER have found my way! Then one of the other staff members drove us, in the Panda, which I had driven so carefully for the past three weeks, like a raving lunatic to our hotel on the slopes of the Cerro Ancón, La Estancia, where we had stayed before Christmas. I wonder what some people here take that makes them drive so ridiculously fast and recklessly, or maybe it’s just in the blood!

That evening we were invited to an excellent soirée at the house of our Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) coleopterist friend Donald Windsor, where we were introduced to his girlfriend Katja (? spelling!) and Hector Barrios, another beetle specialist who is extremely familiar with my great grandfather’s work – he was even able to quote passages and details from GCC’s itinerary, which I found most impressive and touching. Hector has visited many museums around Europe where Champion specimens are housed, including in Stockholm, Berlin and Dresden (these miraculously survived both world wars), Paris and several others. We were later joined by Annette Aiello, also of STRI, and it was a great pleasure to chat with these enthusiasts of GCC’s work, sitting on Donald’s terrace, virtually surrounded by the “jungle” he has created in his back garden. The only sad point was that Stanley Heckadon, whom we had also hoped to see again before leaving, was away – in Chiriquí! Our sincerest thanks go to Donald and Katja.

The following morning, Saturday 7th, we took a taxi out to the Parque Metropolitano, that amazing tract of unspoilt forest within the city, and we hiked the two trails that I had not managed to do on my previous visit, before I got totally drenched in a dramatic rainstorm! It was incredibly hot and steamy in the forest, but we did manage to add a few new birds to the list, bringing my Panama total to around 265 species – not that bad considering the fact that I am not familiar with the calls of most of the birds, an invaluable aid when birding in thick tropical forest.

Enormous anthills at the Parque Metropolitano - almost like the volcanoes in Guatemala!

The city skyline from the park

The afternoon was spent driving to the airport as Hélène had to leave on the KLM flight to Amsterdam – amazingly, the taxi driver, who was originally from Chiriquí himself, had a great grandfather who settled there from Spain and established several fincas, as well as running livestock boats transporting cattle and other animals to the capital – that boat which GCC had to share with the pigs may well have belonged to this very man! After this I climbed the Cerro Ancón for one last nostalgic climb, admiring the splendid views of the city on one side and the canal on the other.

Morpho helenor - sadly only the underside

Miraflores Locks on the Panama Canal, seen from Cerro Ancon

Panama City from the Cerro Ancon

And so ends my time in Panama. Although this visit has not been long enough to allow me to fully investigate all of the locations where my great grandfather did his collecting, a great start has been made, with almost all of the locations having been found at least on the map. The next step would be to visit all of these spots with the aim of interviewing older residents who may know of the exact locations where he stayed, and an analysis of the descriptions of his daily movements should be carried out, followed by an examination of the current state of the habitats then compared with that of today. Donald Windsor, Hector Barrios and Lukas Sekerka have been trying to relocate all the species of certain beetle groups recorded by GCC, and they are still missing a significant number. Perhaps, with the new knowledge of these locations that I have found during this short visit, they may be able to achieve that goal.

The Puente de las Americas, crossing the Panama Canal, in the sunset

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Saturday 7th January 2012

From the chilly highlands to the sweltering plains – getting warmer…in more ways than one!

I am now back in Panama City, with much to report since the last update. On Tuesday 3rd, we had intended to go from our hotel in Guadalupe to the Las Nubes entrance of the Parque Internacional La Amistad, a flagship trans-boundary park that protects a vast area of the Cordillera de Talamanca in both Panama and Costa Rica, but due to reports from a Dutch couple in our hotel that they had seen three Quetzales at the El Respingo office of the Environmental Agency ANAM in a different area, in the Parque Nacional Volcán Barú, plus the fact that our birding guidebook mentions this as “one of the easiest places in the World to see the quetzal”, we changed our plan and went for this instead.

An interesting sign - Do not enter, tiger on the loose!

The weather was dull and gloomy, with a spitting kind of rain, and the hike up to this location was tough going, but we finally made it, and the clouds cleared away a little. However, NO quetzal was to be seen anywhere. However, we headed a short way into the forest along the frustratingly named Camino de los Quetzales (the other end of which we had hiked a few days previously from above Boquete), but it was not long before we reached a section where the path had been swept away down a precipice, and although we certainly could have made our way carefully past this obstacle, we decided to head back up in the hope of seeing a quetzal – but to no avail! We did see a Black Guan, a large and elusive game bird, and a very cooperative Volcano Hummingbird, but feeling rather dejected, we retraced our footsteps to the car, and returned to the even more frustratingly named Eco-lodge Los Quetzales, where virtually every corner harboured a wooden carving or a painting of….a quetzal!

Here the Camino de los Quetzales had collapsed

In the afternoon we ventured out again, this time to follow our original morning plan, and so it was that we ended up at Las Nubes, where we followed one of the trails that lead out from the national park office there. About halfway around the loop, at a point where I was very carefully climbing over an extremely slippery fallen log, I suddenly heard a characteristic bubbling call, and I shouted out “Quetzal!”, but was unable to look up myself. Hélène, however, was in a safer position, and she did look up, and that mythical bird flew across a clearing in the forest just above her. She described it as “like a snake flying through the air”, with its incredibly long tail feathers trailing behind it. And I missed it!!!! That’s what birders describe as being “gripped off”, i.e. someone else seeing what you wanted to see yourself! However, I have seen quetzals in both Costa Rica and Guatemala, so I should not complain too much. And I did later manage to see a Wrenthrush, a much more elusive and harder to see bird, which went some way towards compensating my damaged ego!

The Quetzal flew across near here - and I missed it!

The following morning we departed the cool, rainy highlands, and, following our Canadian friend Rosalie’s advice, took a brand new and unsignposted road that cuts across from below Volcán to Potrerillos, snaking its way along the lower slopes of the volcano and removing the necessity to descend all the way to the Interamerican Highway if you want to travel between the two highland towns of Volcán and Boquete. But it was not for convenience that we took this route, but rather because this new road has opened up areas that are deeply associated with my great grandfather, entomologist George Charles Champion (“GCC”), who spent much time here in 1881 and 1882.

The old and the new along the road from Cuesta de Piedra

Following our amazing breakthrough in the quest to find the locations where he stayed, thanks to our finding the detailed map on the wall of the dining area of the Eco-lodge Los Quetzales, which marked many places which we had previously not had any indication of the precise locations of, and armed with photographs of this map, it was not long before we were actually driving into the tiny settlement of Nance Bonito, where GCC had based himself from 1st to 27th May, 1881. It was a strange feeling to visit this out-of-the-way place, which even today is a tiny hamlet, with only a dirt road, a small church and a small shop. While he was here, GCC apparently stayed at the Finca Eureka, but of this we could find no sign. Most of this area now forms part of a huge orange plantation belonging to a fruit juice company called Los Citricos S.A., and perhaps the Finca Eureka was absorbed into this. Such mysteries will have to be investigated at a future date – but it was a wonderful feeling to be so close to the footsteps of my great grandfather, even if not to find the precise house in which he slept.

Nance Bonito highstreet

Self downing a bottle of Crush outside the store in Nance Bonito

And Nance Bonito was not the only place where we touched upon the traces of George – we drove a short distance on the new road before turning off to the north-west onto a dirt track, which led us closer and closer to another location where he stayed, this time from 14th July to 1st August, 1881: La Elvira. However, we were finally thwarted in our mission to reach this place, as we came to a very unsafe-looking bridge, which we felt that perhaps it would not be wise to take our hired Fiat Panda over…and so another location will remain to be investigated at a future date, but at least we now know where it is, and that is a very important step.

The bridge near La Elvira we decided not to take the Fiat Panda over

By this stage, time was running short, so we set off down to the capital of Chiriquí province, David, and drove through the centre of the city, around the Parque Cervantes, the main square, close to which GCC must also have stayed, but there were no signs of old buildings to be found, and we rapidly left the bustling city behind us, driving eastwards along the Interamerican Highway in our pleasantly air-conditioned car – George had to suffer the heat of this area on his mule; how different his experience must have been to the easy lifestyle we enjoy today.

After we had been driving for some time (but nothing compared to the time GCC needed to cover the same ground on his mule – not to mention his poor “boy” Leopoldo, who had to walk), we turned off on a short detour to the village of Nancito, where George stayed from 23rd to 28th January, 1883, penniless, all his money having just been stolen from his saddle-bags in nearby Tolé. We had been told that Nancito boasted an insect museum, so of course it was imperative for us to visit….but sadly, nobody here seemed to have heard of such an institution, and they directed us instead to a small museum of ancient petroglyphs, which it has to be said were well worth seeing anyway.

A petroglyph at Nancito

By now we were getting a little tired, and we therefore headed down to the coast, to the tiny port of Boca Chica, from where GCC left on 18th March, 1883, on his way to Panama City; as he records in his itinerary: “En route to Panama in small coasting vessel carrying various passengers, who were accommodated in the open air on planks above the cargo of pigs”. As the voyage took five days due to adverse winds, it must have been quite an experience. Here, although we did not have to endure travelling with pigs, we did not find any suitable-looking accommodation, and so moved on eastwards to the seaside resort of Las Lajas, where we recommenced our search.

Iguana keeping a lookout

We started by trying the Cabañas Panamá, an attractive-looking complex of small A-frame huts run by a German from Berlin. These looked promising, but on closer inspection, we found that a great deal of cleaning was required, and the toilet and washbasin had not seen a cloth in weeks – perhaps George, after five days in a boat with those pigs, would have found this a luxurious establishment, but it is hard to excuse such slovenliness today – a real pity as the location was excellent and the buildings themselves rustic but potentially pleasant.

To cut a long, and increasingly desperate story short, we could find nothing in Las Lajas, where either you have to spend at least $200 a night to stay in the Las Lajas Resort (which was full anyway), or rough it in sweltering and dirty cabins….or so we thought, until on the way out we saw a sign saying “Italian Bed and Breakfast”. Without much hope, we called the number on the sign, and to my great relief a charming Italian voice answered, saying that yes they did have a room available, and that so long as our car could make it along their extremely rough access road for 1.8 kms, we were most welcome. Well, perhaps it was lucky we had a Fiat, because it made it to the Italian Bed and Breakfast, the Casa Laguna, where we were welcomed by our hosts Maria and Michele, who have created this haven over the past two years, and I can thoroughly recommend it! We took a walk along the beach in the sunset before enjoying a delicious dinner cooked by Maria, before turning in for a well-earned sleep.

Sunset at Las Lajas

Sunrise at Las Lajas

The following morning, after an early walk again along the deserted beach, we reluctantly left this haven, and headed back towards the main road, stopping to check the birds on a wonderful muddy lagoon just inland from the village, where despite the appalling smell of some unfortunate dead animal, we were treated to views of among other delights a bright pink Roseate Spoonbill, a Bat Falcon perched on a dead tree, and a rare and local hummingbird, the Veraguan Mango.
From here we left the footsteps of GCC, as he had of course covered the arduous journey back to Panama City in his boat with the pigs. Our Fiat Panda was a luxury in comparison, and we soon reached the small town of Divisa, where we turned off following the directions in the bird guidebook, finally reaching the wonderful lake and marsh of Las Macanas, where despite the heat, we enjoyed panoramic views from an elevated tower of such delights as numerous Black-bellied Whistling Ducks and two Lesser Scaup, raptors including a White-tailed Kite mobbing a Northern Harrier, an Osprey hovering hopefully over the water, and nearby, two Aplomado Falcons being chased off by Great-tailed Grackles. It was encouraging to see such an incredibly rich wetland, apparently well protected, even though it looks just the sort of place that agriculturalists would love to drain and turn into no doubt highly productive farmland.

The tower at Las Macanas

Although it was getting late, our day had not yet ended as we returned to the highway and continued eastwards, turning off again at the town of Aguadulce, from where we drove down towards to coast, where we passed through a fabulous complex of semi-abandoned saltpans, now forming an incredibly rich habitat for birds. Here we added such species as Gull-billed and Caspian Tern, Limpkin, both Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs in the same binocular view, and many more. We eventually came out at the beach, where many more shorebirds were to be seen (although the piles of plastic trash were sad to see; as in Guatemala – and indeed in Scotland, and to my dismay even in the formerly clean Netherlands, it seems to be totally acceptable to just dump your rubbish anywhere these days), before we finally headed back to the highway, before checking into our hotel in Penonomé for the night.

The wild and lonely saltpans of Aguadulce

The final chapter of this Panamanian adventure will come in the next post, which will be my last from here before I return for a few days to Guatemala, before finally drawing the curtain on this great Central American journey.

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Monday 2nd January 2012

Cerro Punta – cool weather, but hot on the trail of GCC

This post begins two days ago, in Boquete, with a rather damp hike up the Sendero de la Culebra, which provided a number of new birds for the Panama list, but which we eventually abandoned due to the persistent rain, which made observation somewhat difficult. However, the day was not wasted as we decided to drive down from Boquete in the afternoon to investigate another location that features prominently in my great grandfather George Charles Champion’s diaries: Potrerillos. In fact, there are now two villages with this name, Potrerillos Abajo (lower) and Potrerillos Arriba (upper). Reaching this area from Boquete involves driving down a long way the road towards the main town of Chiriquí, David, and then turning off to the right and ascending an almost parallel road, which passes through open, savannah-like habitat, complete with astonishingly beautifully constructed dry-stone walls….better than we see in Scotland these days! These areas are mostly still open countryside at present, but almost everything is for sale, and new housing developments are springing up all over this area.

Basalt rock formation above Boquete

Flora along the Sendero de la Culebra

We investigated both of the two Potrerillos, but without finding any signs of where GCC might have stayed – in Guatemala, finding the actual buildings in which he slept was sometimes possible, but here I suspect that the buildings were made of wood (this area was only opened up for settlement shortly before GCC arrived, so perhaps permanent structures had not yet been built), and they no longer stand today, making the quest considerably more difficult.
New Year’s Eve involved a delicious dinner back at the Finca Lérida, but no further festivities, and we were up at a reasonable hour on 1st January, and it was not long before we were packed up and on the road down from Boquete. Suddenly my mobile phone rang – it was our Canadian friend Rosalie, whom we had met a couple of weeks ago in Panama City, and who together with her husband Harry has a house here, in Bugaba, one of the places most closely associated with my great grandfather. Her question was: “Are you going to stop by?”… to which our immediate answer was: “Yes, please!”

And so it was that we drove down to David, then a short distance westwards as far as La Concepción, where we turned northwards on the road towards Volcán, but almost immediately we turned off in search of Rosalie and Harry’s house, and thanks to the excellent directions we had been given over the phone, we soon arrived. We had a very pleasant long chat, exchanging news of our travels with their tales of the cruise they had just been on, to Cartagena, Aruba, Curaçao and Bonaire, before heading off for a quick lunch in a nearby snack bar.

Spencer, Rosalie and Harry outside their home in Bugaba

After this, Harry kindly offered to drive us to another place of great significance in the quest to find the locations where my great grandfather worked during his stay in Chiriquí from 1881 to 1883: Bugabita. This tiny place turned out to be almost Harry and Rosalie’s neighboring village, but today all the buildings appear to be modern, so again it proved impossible to establish precisely where he stayed. Nonetheless, it was interesting to see the kind of habitats in which he must have done his insect collecting. GCC mentions that this area was already in those days mostly open cattle country, but that from Bugaba westwards to the Costa Rican frontier there was much fine forest – almost all of this has since disappeared.

Having said our Goodbyes to Rosalie and Harry, we drove up and up into the mountains again, the temperature dropping perceptibly as we rose – a great relief to northerners at heart like us! Finally we reached the highland town of Volcán, where we turned off the main highway and drove 14 kms or so further up, literally into the clouds, before finally arriving at our current hotel, Los Quetzales, in the tiny village of Guadalupe, near Cerro Punta, where we checked in.
It was in the restaurant of this hotel, quite unexpectedly, that perhaps the biggest breakthrough in the quest to relocate the places that my great grandfather stayed in came! On the wall in the restaurant/bar area hangs a series of framed 1:50,000 maps of Chiriquí, by far the most detailed we have yet seen….and these maps turned up trumps! Names that I thought I would never be able to locate almost jumped out of the maps at me: Nance Bonito, La Elvira, El Banco, Cañafístulo, and several more….all of them tiny settlements, but actually there on the map! Without a four-wheel drive vehicle, or in some cases perhaps a descendant of GCC’s mule (!), it may be hard to reach these places, but at least I now have a much clearer idea of where they are – a massive and totally unexpected bonus!!

Rainbow on way up to Cerro Punta

Self photographing the map that revealed so much

This morning we were up early, and set off after breakfast in a tractor-drawn trailer for an excursion up into the cloud forest above Guadalupe, to the Cabañas Los Quetzales, a series of cabins also belonging to this hotel, but set high above, deep in the forest, and only reachable by four-wheel drive vehicles or this extraordinary tractor-train. Here we were treated to the most amazing display of hummingbirds, of at least five different species, zooming around our heads to get at the feeders which our guide filled with sugar solution as soon as we arrived. We then did a very muddy hike up through the forest to a waterfall, and then bid the rest of the group farewell as we wanted to walk back down at our own pace…and perhaps connect with that mystical bird the Resplendent Quetzal. However, although I did hear one call away on the other side of the valley on two occasions, the extremely poor visibility and persistent rain prevented us from gaining a sighting.

This afternoon we drove down to Volcán, where we headed off the main road to another location favoured by GCC all those years ago: the Lagunas de Volcán. We had to abandon our Fiat Panda as the road became impassable for such a small vehicle, but a walk of perhaps 45 minutes brought us to the first of three tranquil lakes, where we were able to observe such bird species as American Purple Gallinule, Pied-billed Grebe, American Coot, Belted Kingfisher and several others. But the absolute highlight was a bright blue-billed Masked Duck, which Hélène spotted emerging emerging from the reedy vegetation and diving a few times in full view before disappearing back into hiding. This widespread but very local species was a treat to see, and we can only hope that a viable population persists here into the future. These lakes appear well protected, and perhaps have not changed much since GCC searched for insects on their banks 130 years or more ago. Long may they remain a haven for wildlife into the future.

The Laguna de Volcan

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