Trip Report for Panama August 2011
Author: Kim Garwood
This trip is timed for the rainy season, which runs May or June through November. December to March is dry and often windy, especially in January/February. The Panamanians call this time winter, and the dry months summer, the reverse of North America. So it’s less crowded in hotels at this time. In my experience more species are flying now, when it’s wet, but Al tells me the hairstreaks are more common in the dry season, when many trees and plants bloom.
July 30 – fly nonstop from Houston to Panama City on Continental, night in Canal Inn B&B
July 31 – drive to Finca Hartmann for 5 nights, 1400-1500 meters
Aug 1,2,3,4 – explore trails at Finca Hartmann
Aug 5 – drive to El Valle, 2 nights at El Campestre, 650-700 meters
Aug 6 – walk the trail at Campestre, 800 meters and lots of Ithomiinae
Aug 7 – walk Ichiro’s trail (Cerro Gaital), then after lunch drive to Burbayar Lodge for 3 nights, 1450’/400 meters
Aug 8 – we hiked the trails at Burbayar, very few butterflies
Aug 9 – we go to Lake Boyano for the day, road 12 km southeast of the bridge to the left
Aug 10 – leave Burbayar, back to the Canal Inn for 2 nights, work Cerro Jefe for the day
Aug 11 – day trip back to Cerro Jefe, top about 950 meters
Aug 12 – fly back to the US
Saturday July 30 – fly to Panama City where I’m met by Albert Thurman, our fearless leader for the next 2 weeks. Al has spent a ton of time in Panama, after living there for 5+ years in the 70’s and doing many trips back there.
Our trip was organized by Expeditions Travel out of Gainesville, FL, and is a collecting trip with permits. We have an interesting group, some after beetles, many after butterflies, and most after moths.
We go to Pences for a delicious dinner, out towards the causeway. I get fajitias for $12 and tasty corvine ceviche for another $5, such a deal.
Sunday July 31 – we head to David and Volcan, to our home for the next 5 days at Finca Hartmann. This is a coffee finca where Al has collected for 30+ years. They have a large building with 4 bedrooms upstairs and 2 more downstairs plus 3 beds in the main room.
The best thing is there is a nice fireplace and the guys, mostly John MacDonald, keep the fire going 24/7. We’re about 1400-1500 meters and it’s often foggy and cool, in the 60’s, so the fire feels great. There is also a small cabin w/a large bed and a separate kitchen, so a couple could stay here very nicely. I manage to score this honeymoon suite, which is pretty cool. We even have hot water with propane showers and flush toilets, but no electricity. However, as the guys are collecting moths they have generators so you can charge batteries and run computers at night off the generators.
We bring our own food and Al cooks most of the dinners, while the Rileys volunteer to handle breakfast and do a bang up job. There are 15 of us, a large group, so cooking is no small task. But it seems to go easily, if somewhat casually, and we all have plenty of food.
The first night we plan to eat at Il Forno, in Volcan, a tasty Italian restaurant that is run by one of the Hartmann daughters. We were supposed to get to the restaurant by 4:30pm, but due to a variety of factors (having to get the 3rd rental car in the morning, 2 hours at a leisurely lunch in Santiago at La Hacienda) we don’t arrive until closer to 7pm, then finally make it up the mountain to the Finca by 10 or 11. The van won’t make the last 2 miles of bad road, so they have to shuttle the little cars to haul in all our luggage.
But we finally get in, except they are short a couple of beds, so Al and Mike go back to town to get a hotel. The Hartmanns bring out a few more mattresses the next morning and Ichiro moves into my cabin, he gets the kitchen.
Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday August 1/2/3/4 – wander the trails at the Finca. The best trails are the roads, both back the way we came in and continuing a bit further on from the Finca, plus there is a long road back from the Y, which is about half a mile or so from the cabins.
I walk maybe a mile or two along this road, into good forest, while several of the hikers go much further. There is a trail off this track that heads to Amistad National Park, another 2 miles, and several other trails through the woods, but they aren’t well maintained and it’s very dark and wet in the woods.
We have heavy rain every day, often by early afternoon, and lots of fog, so the weather isn’t in our favor. We see some good things, but the numbers of butterflies seems low to me. I get some new species, which is always fun, but the overall diversity isn’t much. Probably the best is a gorgeous bright blue Flat, Celaenorrhinus aegiochus, which looks like a Two-barred Flasher at first. I always wonder what it’s like at a different time of the year. Al says the dry season is good for hairstreaks, February being the best. Some of my other favorites are the Mesosemia, lots of M.asa, a beautiful dark blue male and the female has a white stripe on the forewing. Plus 2 new ones for me, M.grandis, with a spectacular bright turquoise blue stripe across both wings, and M.harveyi, all rufous w/small tails. Later, when I get home to my reference books, I realize this brown one is really a female M.grandis.
Friday August 5 – We leave Finca Hartmann about 8:30am, and fortunately they come up with a big truck to haul all our luggage, otherwise it would have taken us several trips to get it all out in the little cars. We get down to their house, about 100 meters lower at 1300 or so, and wander around for an hour. It’s nice and sunny there, and they have some trails down to a stream, plus a little museum of pre-Colombian artifacts they have found on their land. Most of us buy some coffee to take home.
There are a number of species we see just around the house and garden and trails, like Rusty-tipped Page and Archaeopreponas and Sulphurs. We finally get under way, say goodbye, and make it to David where we have lunch at the KFC, then leave there about 1pm.
It takes us to just about 6pm to make it to the Hotel Campestre at El Valle. The turn off to El Valle is about 98 km from Panama City, and it seems to take forever to drive back down the bumpy road, around trucks and many cops w/radar. It appears that we have the hotel to ourselves, which is good so the moth people can string up their sheets and lights. We have a tasty dinner, steak with pepper sauce for me, at the hotel restaurant which is outdoors and has a great view of the valley and the sunset.
Saturday August 6 – There is a nice trail about 800 meters long that starts from the garden of the hotel, you can see the sign from the restaurant for the ‘square trees’, arboles cuadernos?, you cross the small stream and walk a short distance, under a large limb that hangs over the trail, and there is a great spread out lek of Ithomiinae sitting around in the dappled shade, perfect for photos. John MacDonald tells me he had 21 species of clearwings here last year on August 13. I have 16 species today, and miss several of them.
This would be a great trail to walk once a week, or at least monthly, and see how the species mix changes throughout the year. When you get to the big tree, where they have several benches, there is a sign returning to the hotel to the left, but if you go to the right a short distance you hit a barbed wire fence. Turn right, follow the fence line maybe 100-200 feet and there are a couple of places where the wire is down so it’s easy to step through into the meadow full of impatients. Here it’s more open and sunny, instead of in the dappled woods, and there are different butterflies. Many crescents, Eresia and Castilia, and at least 2 species of Parides, including childrenae the beautiful green one.
So a great morning is had by all, most of us don’t get back for lunch until mid afternoon. Ichiro takes another trail down the street to the right, he’s going to show it to me tomorrow. He gets some different stuff, including a yellow Melete, looks like a different subspecies. That afternoon Kevin Painter, a guy who’s been sending me photos from El Valle, comes to meet me and takes me to dinner at Bruschetta, a delicious restaurant in town, and we sit around and blab for hours, plus Berto, another photographer from El Valle, comes by to meet. It’s always fun to get to put faces to folks you have only known online.
Sunday August 7 – Ichiro, Dave and I head for Ichiro’s trail, which is called Cerro Gaital. Ichiro found it by using the book Where to Find Birds in Panama. We have the morning here, than we’re heading to Burbayar Lodge for 3 nights.
You drive, from Campestre, by taking the first right from their driveway, then the first left, then the next right, and you can drive out maybe 500 meters or a km and park where the road dead ends, at a sign that says Bienvenides a Cerro Gaital. You hike uphill several hundred meters and come to a yellow empty hut, where the trail goes to the left. Better is to take a cut through the woods to the left, you go through a barbed wire fence, a little before the yellow hut. This is a decent trail about a km or so which then intersects w/the main trail. The cut through is better to walk, as the ‘main’ trail is overgrown, w/grass over rocks, so it’s difficult to see where you’re putting your feet. The cut through is more across the hillside through waist high undergrowth, and there are lots of Ithomiinae again sitting around, waiting to be photographed. I saw several different species from what I had the previous day. First butterfly I saw, however, was a fresh Riodinid, Ithomeis eulema imitatrix, a dramatic orange,black and white bug. It was on territory, flitting from bush to bush, and Ichiro patiently waited for me to take lots of photos before he collected it. The Ithomiinae were interesting as the dark tigerwings tended to lek together, and the translucent bluish ones grouped together. In the tigerwing group I had lots of Napeogenes tolosa , Hyposcada virginiana, Tithorea tarricina, very similar looking but three different sizes. The Napeogenes is the smallest, up to the Tithorea. I also got good shots of Yellow-banded Ruby-eye, Orses cynisca.
For birding, I saw the rare rufous-vented ground-cuckoo extremely well. I was lurking around quietly, waiting for clearwings to settle for photos at a lek, when this clacking comes from the bushes and the ground-cuckoo dashes up the hill close to me. Then it flew up about 20’ in a tree and sat there clacking its bill at me, maybe 40-50’ away. Finally it quieted down and just sat there watching me for 5 minutes or more. Best looks I’ve ever had at that usually shy bird, maybe I was near a nest?
After lunch we drive back to Panama City and a couple of hours southeast to Burbayar Lodge, turning left off the Pan American Highway at the signed road to Ceti about 60-70 km from PC.
The road up the hill to the lodge was only paved about 2 years ago, and it’s still a steep slow drive, only about 14 km in from the main highway. Simple little thatched cabins, I score my own cabin w/a porch over the forest, no electricity except when they run the generator for the evening hours. No hot water but we do have flush toilets, and the food is excellent, and they even include wine with dinner, very civilized.
Monday August 8 – Mike and I explore the white trail, only about 500 meters along the creek. You have to cross the creek a couple of times and it’s fairly deep, deeper than my borrowed boots so I have to stop and dump the water out of my boots on the far side. Plus the boots have a hole in the left one.
Then I walk the red trail, which starts about 50’ or so down from the entrance on the main road. The first km or so is nice, crisscrossing the stream many times but not deep, though very nice looking forest but almost no butterflies. It’s a sunny morning, and we’ll all puzzled by the lack of butterflies. Maybe another time of the year.
The red trail loops around to the top of the cabins, about 2.5 km, so I figure I’ll end up back there. However they don’t have it marked at a key intersection (actually a couple of key intersections, but I guess right on those). When I come to a choice where there is a sign for the blue trail to the right, I ‘assume’ my red trail goes straight. At this point I’m within 300 meters of the cabins, after a couple of hours of slogging up and down hills on muddy slippery trails, and I’m ready to be back home. But I go half a km or so, and nothing. So I backtrack to one of the junctions, no signs, and try a different tack, but again nothing after half a km or so.
By this time I’m getting very tired and low on water, and worried that I may have to go all the way back to the start, 2.5 km away, and afraid that I don’t have the energy to do that. Finally I get back to the junction w/the sign for the blue trail and try that one as a last resort, and eureka that is correct. Thanks for the signs, guys. It would have been easy to have a red arrow, or a sign saying ‘lodge’ or exit, but no…Another confusing aspect is they have had pink tape tied to trees every now and then counting down the meters left (which is why I thought I was w/in 300 meters).
Once I get on the blue trail the pink tape shows up again, counting down 200 meters, 100 meters, 0 meters, and I’m at the bottom of a ravine standing in the creek, no signs anywhere. Say what??? Fortunately I continue another couple of hundred meters and find one of the traps the guys have put up in a tree, so I know I’m close. Boy am I glad to climb yet another hill and pop out of the woods at the upper cabins.
I stagger back to my cabin, take off my wet boots, and collapse at the lunch table, about 1:30pm, where everyone says, oh good Kim’s back. Then it starts to rain, so good timing on that part, but I was never so glad to get back, and drink a couple of pitchers of cold water.
Tuesday August 9 – we drive back to the main highway and continue to the east (or south, it’s confusing here in Panama, towards the Darien and Colombia).
Be sure to carry your passport, as on a previous trip everyone in the car had to show their passport and the policia copied down all the numbers, but today we sail right on through.
A little less than an hour we have crossed Canita and the Bayano bridge over Lake Bayano, and another 12 km to the not very noticeable gravel road into the bushes. Al and John found this spot scouting earlier, and our 3 cars pull in and we wander around.
These may be logging roads, or tracks, but they are somewhat open and lots of butterflies. Before we are out of the cars we can see Heliconius erato or melpomene with just the red band on the forewing but all black on the hindwing. It’s interesting, as we see both ones with the yellow line on the HW, and ones without the yellow.
Unfortunately it clouds up, gets darker and darker, the wind kicks up and most of us make it back to the cars before the heavens open, except for Ichiro and Chris who come back as drowned rats. Dave runs back and just beats a tree crashing down on the road. The wind brings down several trees, it’s a bit scary.
We go have an early lunch at a decent restaurant back in Canita, then get back to the field by noon, the sun comes out and things are hopping. There was even a big tree down on the highway, but they’re clearing it by the time we return from our early lunch. We stay until about 4pm, and John MacDonald shows me a new Mesosemia hypermegala, mostly black with a blue ring, a stunning bug. Another good day, funny how different from the day before.
Wednesday August 10 – we depart Burbayar after breakfast, after saying goodbye to the bats. I’ve had bats flying through my room every night, and last night they left presents on my floor and even on my pillow. Apparently they were eating some fruit with large seeds and deposited the seeds as they flew over my bed.
I wake in the middle of the night and feel smooth slippery slimy things on my pillow, get my flashlight and see weird shiny egg looking things all over. The guys in the kitchen tell us they are seeds from the bats, and I can’t think what else they could be. Lisa even had a bat hit her in the head last night while she was in bed, so we won’t miss the bats too much.
We head to Cerro Jefe, a famous collecting site. In the DeVries Costa Rica Riodinid book it is interesting to see how many of the Riodinids were collected here at Cerro Jefe.
We drive back to Panama City and take the Cerro Azul turnoff, then branch to Cerro Jefe. On the way up we stop at a house with eupatorium all over their driveway and hillside and probably a thousand Ithomiinae, mostly tigerwings, coming to the blue mist flowers. I’ve never seen so many nectaring. Mostly Hypothyris euclea, but I suspect we’ll end up with 7 or 8 or more species once we sort them all out.
The house is almost at the end of the paved road, across from Finca Luna, about 2,000’. Then we head on up, onto the dirt road, stopping at several spots the guys have had good luck with putting out their traps. John has caught Agrias amydon smalli here, and he scores another as soon as he hangs his trap. Lisa also catches one in the same spot, it must be a pass over the hills. John also takes us to a spot where they catch Morpho cypris, another holy grail for the collectors.
We eventually work our way to the top, to what they call elfin forest, about 950 meters/3200’. Here the fog is rolling in, so we have lunch (always a good time to eat, when the weather is bad), it brightens up and we get butterflies flying. Dave tells us he has some good skippers up at the antennae tower a bit up the road, so several of us head up there. He caught Myscelus perissodora. The collectors get several good riodinids, which they let me shoot later in the hotel, Mesenopsis melanochlora and Panaropsis elegans. I miss a couple of different Vettius grass skippers, both V.artona and V.layrenaye, plus several different dark big satyrs that I haven’t seen before.
This is a good spot, different species flying, you can only imagine how good it could be if it was a sunny day. We make it back to the Canal Inn, some go
to the artisanal market for shopping, and the whole group goes to Jimmy’s for dinner, a tasty Greek restaurant.
Thursday August 11 – I head back to Cerro Jefe w/2 car loads, but the 3rd car goes to the Pipeline Road. Up on Cerro Jefe we have a great day, with the collectors getting several Agrias, Preponas, and John gets Baeotus beotus, which he had never seen before and I had not seen north of Amazonian Peru.
Unfortunately it was foggy again up at the tower, so I only saw Ancyluris inca at the riodinid spot. The dark satyrs flying around are Praepronophila petronius, I think, though Dave also caught a brighter rufous satyr that looks just right for this species. So the dark ones may be something else. The Rileys also score and catch 3 Morpho cypris, which gives us 5 species of Morpho up there. Many of the Nymphalids are flying around the special tree, where the collectors now have 3 or 4 traps hung.
On further examination, Tom finds sap leaking from the tree in several places, it forms drip spots under the branches, and many butterflies are attracted to this hanging sap. Good thing John noticed the butterflies flying around this tree on his initial scouting trip before our trip started, and choose to hang his trap here. This has been a magnet for the gaudy sap-sucking Nymphalids. Perhaps the tree is diseased, a healthy tree wouldn’t be producing sap like this, usually.
So our final day is much fun for all. That night, back at the Canal Inn, just as we’re ready to go to dinner the heavens open and torrential rain pours down. We wait half an hour or so, while the streets flood over the curb, and decide to go back to Pences for dinner, instead of out to the Miraflores Locks as planned.This turns out to be a wise decision as the power is out over much of the city, except Pences has their own generator. I enjoy their delicious fruit freeze drinks, batidas. This time I get passionfruit. A good way to end a good trip.