Dawn at the Old Mexican Elm

Drifting fog at Dawn, Mount Totumas, Panama.
The fog drifted past the Old Mexican Elm Tree. Dawn was just starting at Mount Totumas Cloud Forest, Panama

The drifting fog produced a ghostly look in the canopy, and dripping water filled the forest with a tingling sound. Dawn was just starting at Mount Totumas. Bromeliads, ferns, and mosses draped over branches, and dense bushes covered the understory. I stood mesmerized, my hand stuck in my pockets, eyes unfocused, but ears at their peak. Bird songs were everywhere in this Panamanian jungle.

The forest was waking. This was early April, and the valley was in transition from the dry season to the wet. Rains over the previous few days had sparked the community; spring was here. A Flame-colored Tanager serenaded me from the treetops. His raspy voice sounded like he had a sore throat. Up the hill, a Black-faced Solitaire began his melodious song. The oboe, clarinet & flute-like notes were sweet, delicate, and made me think a woodwind quartet was nearby. He was using both syrinxes to produce that complex tune. Right then, I cupped my hands around my ears so I could hear him more clearly. Perhaps, the solitaire sat a dozen feet up in a tree, bending his head back slightly as he projected that melody. 

Flame-colored Tanager, Mount Totumas, Panama
A male Flame-colored Tanager works through the branches at Mount Totumas, Panama. They sing loudly at dawn and often throughout the day.

I’d left the lodge 45 minutes earlier to hike into the forest, through the dark jungle, walking slowly but deliberately, picking my way, flashlight on dim and partly covered. This little rise, near the Old Mexican Elm, was a perfect place to stand, just listening. Here moderately mature second-growth forest surrounded three-quarters of the compass, and younger trees grew in the other quadrant. The birds should be diverse.

Right then, the wavy notes of a Slate-throated Redstart, high in pitch and rapid, came from just into the forest. I moseyed over to look for this bird. It should have a blackish head and back, and its belly yellowish; it would be a small bird, probably flitting through the understory. Falling water droplets kept twitching leaves, and I could not spot this warbler. 

Resplendent Quetzal, Mount Totumas, Panama
The long tail of a Resplendent Quetzal blows in the wind at Mount Totumas Cloud Forest, Panama

The monotonous notes of a Resplendent Quetzal resonated from farther into the dense vegetation. This altitudinal migrant would have just come back to this side of the mountain. During the dry season, this species spends its time in the lowlands of the Caribbean, returning here to the Pacific slope just before the rainy season. Now they would be pairing and finding a nest cavity. Probably, he was using that call to defend a territory and court a female. The flush of fruit that comes with the rains will be the source of food for their nestlings. They particularly like the relatives of avocados because of their high nutrient content.

Howler Monkey, Mount Totumas, Panama
A mother Howler Monkey lets out a bellow early one morning at Mount Totumas, Panama. Howler Monkeys wake at dawn and usually sing for the first few minutes before they go off to feed on leaves.

A bellowing wail came from my left. A Howler Monkey was complaining that it needed more sleep. Every morning when the alarm went off, my wife used to say, “Just five more minutes.” I’d then have to wake her. The troop went quiet for a little while before they began to sing their morning wake-up call. The locals have a saying, “The monkeys call the rain.” Perhaps, the Pacific would win out on that day, and more rain would fall.

I began to stroll up the trail, my hands back in my pockets. The monkeys continued to bellow, the tanager projected his raspy voice, and the Quetzal tooted. Several birds that I didn’t recognize chimed into the chorus. A chatter possibly made by a Spot-crowned Woodcreeper and some high-pitched buzzes rose in front of me, so much to figure out.

Then, finally, almost 18 minutes after the chorus started, a Three-wattled Bellbird let out its first squawk, much louder than it needed to be.

Spot-crowned Woodcreeper
Spot-crowned Woodcreeper. Mount Totumas Cloud Forest, Panama.

Winnowing

Roger Lake in the Okanogan National Forest. The area burned a decade ago and a new growth of pines, firs, and spruce are coming up throughout the forest. May 25th. (Thomas Bancroft)

Roger Lake in the Okanogan National Forest. The area burned a decade ago and new growth of pines, firs, and spruce are coming up throughout the forest. May 25th. (Thomas Bancroft)

My neck hurt. I’d been staring straight up for the last ten minutes, trying to find the source of the haunting sound that was radiating down. A tremulous “hu-hu-hu” would come from one direction and then another. Wilson’s Snipes were winnowing overhead. I stood by the marsh surrounding Roger Lake in the North Cascades. It was late May, and these birds were actively defending territories and courting. Males, in particular, will fly to a high altitude, then dive, spreading their tail. The sound is made by the wind moving across their outer rectrices, both during the dive and when leveling out. It is a creepy sound and just beautiful to hear. I’d stopped at this place in the hopes of catching it.

Finally, I spotted one. The bird circled in a broad arc around the southern end of the lake. As long as I kept my eyes on it, I could follow it. It was 150 to 200 feet above the ground, doing a gradual dive while making that sound, and then climbing again. When I blinked, I’d lose it. After spotting one a few times, I stopped trying and just listened to the chorus happening all around me.

The Wilson's Snipe popped up on the down log along the edge of the marsh at Wiley Siough. Its long bill stuck down and its right eye glared right at us. (Thomas Bancroft)

The Wilson’s Snipe popped up on the down log along the edge of the marsh at Wiley Slough. Its long bill stuck down and its right eye glared right at us. (Thomas Bancroft)