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.


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)


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.