Archive for the ‘Mount Totumas’ Category

Apr 22

The Flute-like Song of a Black-faced Solitaire

Black-faced Solitaires have a beautiful song, very flute-like in its tone. I made this recording at Mount Totumas in Western Panama.

The high-pitched whistles, very flute-like, came from a dense patch of forest just off the Big Tree Loop. The notes had a resonating quality to them that held in one’s brain for long after they passed. Several notes followed relatively close together, then a long pause before a different tune was uttered. Reinaldo and I had left the lodge early that morning to hike the network of trails at Mount Totumas. I was particularly interested in recording the song of a Black-faced Solitaire, and we had found one. 

This small thrush is in the genus Myadestes. The genus has some remarkable songsters. In undergraduate school, I traveled numerous times with friends in Mexico, and there we heard the Brown-backed Solitaire sing. After graduating, I purchased a print of George Miksch Sutton’s painting of that species and hung it in my house. In the painting, the bird is singing from a branch surrounded by orchids in flower and other epiphytes. Their voice is ventriloqual and that makes it difficult to find them. Hearing the Black-faced singing in Panama made me suspect that they too can project their voice. Oh, to watch a Black-faced sing from a perch such as Sutton painted for its relative would be a thrill.

Ridgely and Gwynne translated the black-faced song as “teedleeleé … tleedleeé … lee-dah … lee-doo.” This bird, though, seemed to use more phrases than they listed and had a series of different tunes before repeating. The slowness and crisp notes reminded me of a fiddler who might be sitting by himself on a porch enjoying the sun and afternoon. Of course, we are not supposed to anthropomorphize, but I can’t imagine that this bird doesn’t enjoy singing.

Scientists have not studied the song of this species very much. Consequently, we don’t know much about its variation within or between individuals. I wondered if it was like our Hermit Thrush in the Pacific Northwest. Each male thrush has 9 to 12 different opening sequences and then elaborate flourishes that follow each. They mix up their songs, and adjacent males rarely have similar tunes. Perhaps, this Black-faced individual has developed his repertoire to deal with his neighbors and keep his territory safe from intruders.

His frequency range was broad, extending the full spectrum of a grand piano, and some notes went even higher than that. Like other thrushes, he uses both of his syrinxes to make his melodious song.

I could listen to him sing all day. 

The montaine forests of Central America are lush and cool. They are highly diverse with hundreds of tree species and provide habitat for numerous birds including the Black-faced Solataire.
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Mar 22

The Song of the Ruddy-Capped Nightingale-Thrush

The ethereal song of a Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush at Mount Totumas in Western Panama.

A melancholic liquid song floated through the understory. Reinaldo and I had left the lodge at Mt. Totumas early that morning to see if we could catch the dawn chorus. The night insects had not yet completely shut down while the birds had begun to wake up when we heard this tune. After a short pause, a clear whistle drifted through next. Reinaldo whispered Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrush. This montane forest was thick second-growth and ideal habitat for this member of the genus Catharus

This genus has twelve living species. Two, the Swainson’s Thrush and Hermit Thrush, breed in Western Washington, where I currently live. Those, too, have beautiful songs. However, this nightingale-thrush has a rich set of phrases that carry far. Sometimes they will sing more than 100 of them before taking a break. This one was putting on a good performance; fluty trills, whistles, warbles, and slurs kept filling my ears with delight.

Two other Catharus species breed at Mount Totumas, and the Swainson’s Thrush migrates through on its way back north from its wintering grounds in the Andes. The Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush breeds at lower elevations and the Black-billed at higher. The Ruddy-capped fills this in-between range on these mountains. Reinaldo took me up into La Amistad International Park to find the Black-billed, and we hiked down to the flood plain of the Rio Colorado to see the Orange-billed.

The diverse phrases of the Ruddy-capped continued to float around us. It sounded like a woodwind quartet, right here. Songbirds create their song in the syrinx, which lies at the base of the trachea and top of the two bronchi. With an elaborate set of muscles, they can control the tension of the wall of each bronchus. As the air passes over this tissue, it oscillates, creating each note. Remarkably, a bird, like this thrush, can control the syrinx at the top of each bronchus separately, allowing them to make different notes in each. Perhaps, this individual is alternating sides or even using both simultaneously to harmonize with himself. 

I could listen to this melody all day.

The Montane Forest at Mount Totumas Cloud Forest Preserve.
The montane forest at Mount Totumas where Ruddy-capped Nightingale-Thrushes live. The elevation here is about 6500 feet. Lower down, the Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush nests and higher up is where the Black-billed Nightingale-Thrush is found.
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Mar 22

The Call and Courtship of Resplendent Quetzals

The two-note whistles came from the forest up the hill. The first note was slightly higher than the second, both were slurred, and they came in rapid succession. A Resplendent Quetzal was giving his territorial call on this April morning. A fainter reply could barely be discerned in the distance by a second male.

These altitudinal migrants had returned to the Westside of the Cordillera de Talamanca in the last few weeks. They spend October through March on the Caribbean side and return to the western side just as the rains begin in April. Here, they court, find a mate, and wait for the flush of fresh fruit that comes with the showers. I’d come to the Mount Totumas Cloud Forest in Western Panama in hopes of finding these magnificent trogons. 

Nest cavity for a Resplendent Quetzal
A nest site with the tail of a male Resplendent Quetzal sticking out the hole.

I imagined this quetzal sitting on a high branch, his long upper tail coverts flowing back and forth in the light breeze. His brilliant coloration, a golden-green iridescence, should make him stand out, but these birds blend into these forests quite well. Although I’d seen several individuals in my week here, I stood, studying every branch, hoping I might spot this one.

Jeffrey — the lodge owner — and I had come out before first light to listen to the forest wake up, and now we’re headed back. The forest was still full of sounds. Black-faced Solitaires, Flame-colored Tanagers, Slate-throated Redstarts all sang along with many things I still couldn’t identify. The screeches of a Three-wattled Bellbird seemed to overpower everything else. Finally, we gave up the search for the quetzal and continued down the trail.

The montane forest in Western Panama where the Resplendent Quetzal comes to breed in April and May each year.

We had gone a half-mile more when Jeffrey halted, whispering quetzal and pointing directly over our heads. Almost immediately, “keow kowee keow” came from above us as some feathers began to move in the leaves. “Courtship display,” murmured Jeffrey. Males do a courtship flight, often flying above the canopy or they may chase a female through the canopy. Two birds were above us, but the vegetation was thick; they appeared to stay in the trees. Active vocalization between them lasted over a minute as I craned my neck to look straight up.

When they stopped, “Wow” seemed to be the only thing I could say. Jeffrey nodded, and we continued back toward the lodge, absorbed by this spectacle. 

Resplendent Quetzal
Resplendent Quetzal looks back over its shoulder. The long feathers are specialized upper tail coverts that grow exceptionally long in males, and they use them in their courtship of females.

Listen to other sounds from the forests at Mount Totumas on Spotify.

Feb 22

The Dawn Chorus along Big Tree Loop

The Dawn Chorus at Mount Totumas Cloud Forest in Western Panama. The recording starts a few minutes before dawn and goes for 60 minutes.

I lowered my butt onto a rock and began to wait. Dink frogs and a few night insects were still in full chorus, but they should be winding down shortly. It was 5:45 AM, and soon the diurnal creatures would begin to stir. The woods at Mount Totumas remained dark, for twilight is short at 8 degrees north latitude. A little before six, as the light began to intensify, birds started to sing, first a few chips here and there. The dawn chorus had begun.

Then a Black-faced Solitaire started its flute-like song—individual notes coming every few seconds. The bird was down over the hill, some distance away, and the chips of a Flame-colored Tanager overwhelmed the solitaire. So, I closed my eyes to concentrate on this small thrush relative. Pauses between each set of notes always raise my anticipation for the next. Their sweetness and harmony nurture a warmth inside of me. Incredibly, this species uses both of its syrinxes simultaneously to make two notes at once, like it was playing the flute and an oboe at the same time.

I was jolted alert at five after six by the hoarse, deep howl of a monkey. It sounded just like the individual had awoken, stretched hard, complained loudly, and then lay back down. No additional monkey sounds came for several minutes before the troop of howler monkeys came alive. They yelled and sang for a good ten minutes before going quiet. I imagined them up in several trees spread across the branches, rejoicing in a new day. Their morning voices are joyous, like someone singing at the top of their lungs in the shower. It was one of the key things I’d hoped to experience on this tropical morning. It sounded as though they’d started to move away from me, but I still scanned the trees, hoping the troop might come my way on its search for young, tasty leaves.

For the next three-quarters of an hour, I sat still, just listening to the sounds of the forest. Insects clicked and rasped as the birds put on a show. Shortly, Slate-throated Redstarts and Resplendent Quetzals added their tunes to the tanager and solitaire. The squeaky sounds of Common Chlorospingus seemed everywhere. Then, about 20 minutes into the morning, I heard the overly loud Three-wattled Bellbird let out its raucous scream. The duet of a pair of Gray-breasted Wood-Wrens filled the air at one point, as did the rattles of Spotted Wood-Quail.  

A little after 7 AM, I rose to head back to the lodge to meet my friends for breakfast. Dawn was magical!

The montane forest of Western Panama is lush and full of species. Several hundred tree species grow here and the bird diversity includes several hundred regular inhabitants. The elevation is around 6500 feet and the temperatures do not vary much during the year. April is the start of the rainy season and when many bird species breed.

More Marveling can be found at:

Apr 20

The Highlands of Western Panama – A Virtual Tour

Birds found at Mount Totumas Cloud Forest Preserve, Panama.

Self-quarantine got you down? Tired of birding through your living room window?  This video will take you to Western Panama and into the cloud forests. Be immersed in the sounds of Western Panama’s wild country. I will guide you through layers of gorgeous birdlife, exotic flora, and a quick jaunt through geologic history. Our goal is to understand how the isthmus of Panama has influenced the evolution of some of our common North American birds. 

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

The mountains of Western Panama are a mixing pot for birds. Neotropical migrants come to winter or pass through on their travels. Altitudinal migrants move in and out with the seasons, and then there are the permanent residents that make up a complex and diverse component. Central America is an active geological area, and over the last ten million years. The formation of the Isthmus has had a profound influence on the bird communities found throughout North and South America, including those in Washington State. Learn more about this fascinating place, its impact on the Western Hemisphere, see some flora and fauna and listen to sounds from the cloud forest.

Alternatively, join me for a live presentation on April 29th at 7:00 PM Pacific Time. I will do a different version of this talk for the Mountaineers. The session is open to the public and free. You can register for it:

A Zoom link will be emailed to you on the afternoon of April 29th.

A mother Howler Monkey lets out a bellow early one morning at Mount Totumas, Panama.
Apr 20

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.
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Oct 19

Sunset at Mt. Totumas, Western Panama

The fight had been going on all day. The Caribbean was not about to give up. It had dominated the Cordillera de Talamanca since last fall. But in early April, the Pacific thought that its turn had come and was pushing hard to bring new weather patterns to these mountains.

The clouds would drift through the forest, bringing on an entirely different feeling to the place.

All morning, the high country to the east had clouds draping over the ridges and peaks, then starting to flow down the Rio Colorado Valley, but the white blanket never entirely made it to the Lodge at Mount Totumas. The Caribbean had lost its oomph. On that day, we had hiked deep into the montane forests, continually watching the changing weather conditions, wondering if the rain would come. First, the sun shone bright, and then clouds would move in. The trees took on a subdued look, soft in color and texture. Then the white blanket would withdraw back up the valley. The shadows grew dark and refined. During those sunny periods, the air had tasted dry, but with that filtered light, it was sweet with moisture. The birds seemed to increase their chorus during those cloudy periods.

In the afternoon, the sky darkened out to the west, rolling clouds moved up the valley but petered out before they reached us. The forest would go from calm, no breeze, to rustling such that we no longer could hear the birds. Then as quickly as it came, things would switch back to tranquil. We never had rain.

Clouds came up the valley from the west, moving as if they would bring rain to the lodge but we mainly had a spectacular dance of white.

Now, the light was fading; the sun had moved far to the west, over the Pacific, beyond our view. But that western body had one final push. Massive cumulonimbus clouds grew to great heights out there. They began to move toward the Rio Colorado but stalled just beyond the ridge in that direction. The thunderheads continued to roll and tower, occasional flashes coming from their interior.

Bird calling diminished except for a three-wattled bellbird that wanted to make sure we hadn’t forgotten him. The night insects tuned up, filling the air with their raspy sounds.  The western sky turned color. Subdued blues became red then pink, fading gradually to black. The definition of the foliage changed, disappearing. The world darkened. The evening howls from the monkeys resonated one last time as they prepared for bed.

I had been standing on the lodge’s deck for more than an hour, mesmerized by the unfolding action. The air was fresh, moist, full of vigor. Life seemed vibrant here. The sounds intense but soft, the light intriguing. This was the tropics in all its glory.

Inside, dinner was coming to the tables, time to leave this world and watch through the large glass panes.

A three-wattled bellbird calls from a high perch as clouds sweep into the area.

On October 23rd 2019 I will be making a presentation on my birding trips to these cloud forests of western Panama. We will meet at the Mountaineers building on Sandpoint Way in Seattle. I will also discuss a new journey I’m planning for April 2020 to this area.  

Additional short essays are available here and here.

An album of bird songs from this forest is available here.

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