Trip Report Panama February 2012
This trip was organized by Al Thurman from Phoenix. He’s been collecting in Panama for over 30 years, and has permits, so this was mostly a collecting trip. Al invited me to come along as the only photographer. The collectors were very gracious and let me go through their specimens at night and shoot what I wanted, which was very helpful.
Participants: Al, John MacDonald (another collector with much experience in Panama, he drove the 2nd car), Gap and Terry Danish, Nathan Schiff, Paul Thompson, Dan Bogar, Larry Bezart, and Bill Tyson (the last 2 were into beetles), and Kim Garwood.
Feb 6 – fly in from Houston, 3 nights in Panama City at Amador Ocean View Hotel
Feb 7 – Cerro Jefe for the day, 900-1000m
Feb 8 – Bayano east of Bayano Lake for the day
Feb 9 – Santa Rita Ridge for the day east slope, move to Canal Inn B&B for 3 nights
Feb 10 – to Gatun/Canal Zone for the day
Feb 11 – to Cerro Campana for the day, 800m, then Cerro Anton late afternoon
Feb 12 – Advantage Panama Tours takes us to horses for ride to Cerro Chucanti Field Station 4 nights
Feb 13/14/15 – hike trails at Chucanti
Feb 16 – horseback downhill, then back to Canal Inn B&B in Panama City
Feb 17 – fly to David 9:15am, 3 nights at Finca Hartmann about 5,000’
Feb 18 – trails around Finca Hartmann
Feb 19 – drive north to Rio Candela, 5600’, on Costa Rican border
Feb 20 – drive to Mt Totumas for 3 nights, check it out and decide to stay at Finca Hartmann
Feb 21 – John and I go to Mt Totumas, stay only 1 night
Feb 22 – we meet the group at Rio Candela for a 2nd time, drive up higher to 6,150’
Feb 23 – fly back to Panama City from David at 5:15pm for 2 nights at Amador Ocean View Hotel
Feb 24 – back to Santa Rita ridge for the day
Feb 25 – drive to El Valle, I stay at Kevin’s house after working the trail at Hotel Campestre
Feb 26/27 – El Capitanes in El Valle 2 nights, change to new lodge at Rio Indio
Feb 28 – back to El Valle and Kevin’s house
Feb 29 – La Laguna w/Kevin, then back to Panama City Hotel Riande by the airport
Mar 1 – fly back to the US
Tues Feb 7 – we’re doing day trips out of Panama City for the next week. We drive to Cerro Jefe, where in August we had the fabulous Agrias tree pulling in all sorts of goodies. That was then, this is now, and we don’t see any leafwings at all. In August the tree was dripping/leaking sap for many places, it may be diseased, but now there isn’t any sign of sap, and therefore no butterflies. The guys hang traps there but get zero. This is also the place where we had the big gathering of clearwings on the blue mistflower/eupatorium on someone’s driveway up the little hill, but we strike out here as well. This is of course the dry season, but we didn’t think it would be this dry. Al has told us he has many specimens taken in February, but we’re not finding much. We get onesie twosies of a variety of species, but nothing in quantity. Most of what we see is very fresh, just small numbers. I have Morpho cypris fly right overhead and it looks mint. They have had all 5 Morpho species at Cerro Jefe, but not today.
Wed Feb 8 – we drive east to Bayano Lake, hot lowlands down logging roads off the highway. It takes close to 2 hours from the city, which makes for a long day. I’m not wild about this place but the others are keen to come back, so that’s fine. This is a good place for Heliconius, especially the erato/melpomene that just have the red on the forewings but no yellow on the hindwings, plus some combinations. Overall it’s very slow and it gets dark and cloudy by early afternoon, so we quit about 2:15 and head back. For restaurants the guys alternate between Pencas, which is more convenient as its right by the Amador Causeway, and their all time favorite Jimmy’s in downtown towards the airport. Jimmy’s has killer steaks, I like their rez a la pimiento or pepper steak, so we pig out every night. Both places have excellent ceviche, and Pencas has delicious fruit blended drinks, or batidos. I alternate between mango and passionfruit or maracuya. Roughing it on these trips is tough duty.
Thur Feb 9 – we drive east to Santa Rita Ridge, just past where the cuota to Colon ends. This is up about 800-900’ at some microwave towers, a nice ridge where we have our best day yet by far. This is on the Atlantic side, so it’s considerably wetter than the dry Pacific side. Lots of Archaeoprepona flying and coming to the traps, and some new riodinids, including Symmachia virgatula caught by Nathan, I’m so jealous. At least he lets me shoot the specimen, a brilliant orange. John sees a Rodinia calphurnia metalmark like Rhetus but we can’t catch it, let alone take a photo. I’ve never seen this one. It’s a beautiful day, not too hot, bright sun, bugs flying. The trails head off in 3 directions, unfortunately they’re all down as we’re at the top w/the microwave towers. But we all have a good time all day long.
Fri Feb 10 – drive east past Santa Ridge towards Colon, take the shore road looking for the Portobello National Park. Al remembers it as a good place 30 years ago (!), but we can’t find it, even though he’s found it online. It has a waterfall, sounds like a nice park, but we hunt up and down the road all the way to the small town of Portobello w/out any luck. It’s a rainy morning and a pretty drive, but not many bugs. So we head over the canal at the Gatun Locks and go to an empty road off to the right that runs through nice forest w/some big trees. Not large numbers flying but we do find some things. The beetle guys find a big log pile and get lots of goodies.
Sat Feb 11 – today we head west to Cerro Campana, across the Bridge of the Americas about an hour or so. This is also about 800m, but much wetter and more cloud forest than Cerro Jefe. It is very foggy and also windy, which is an odd combination. The clouds blow in and out, and it keeps teasing us w/bits of sun, but it never burns off, so after several hours we decide to head back. There are some good things here, but you have to have sun. We check out Cerro Anton, or Anton Hill, which is right in town and Al has never been up there. After a certain amount of backing and filling we find the road to the top, where they have a nice park w/killer views over the city. But it is Saturday afternoon and lots of people want to go up, so we have to wait at a guard shack for 20 minutes or more. It is a narrow twisty road and they only let cars go one way, then they tell us there aren’t any parking places up top, but we finally make it. This would be a good spot to check out in the wet season, as there is lots of good looking habitat, but don’t come on a weekend, or come early in the morning.
Sun Feb 12 – off to Chucanti. They are supposed to pick us up at 8am, then 2.5 to 3 hours to where we get the horses for our 4 hour ride into the Darien. This turns into an ordeal, as first we can’t get Dan from the Amador Ocean View Hotel, where he had to stay due to a shortage of rooms at the Canal Inn. There is an international ironman race today, Sunday, and even though he had checked at the hotel desk to make sure he could get out Sunday morning, Al can’t drive into pick him up. But he can get a cab to the airport, so he manages to make it to the Riande Hotel at the airport, where he meets up w/Paul, who came in the afternoon before and went there, because Al wasn’t there to pick him up. So after much confusion we are all together and departing the Riande Hotel about 2 hours later than planned. We drive to Torti at the edge of the Darien w/Michael, a bird guide I met back in 2006. He now works for Advantage Panama. We have to keep one of the rental cars to drive us to Chucanti, due to another confusion. Al thought they were picking us up in Panama City, but they are only sending a car, which won’t quite fit all 8 of us. We stop for lunch which turns into another 2 hours ordeal at the restaurant in Torti, so we finally make it to the horses about 4pm. After having to stop at a checkpoint where the guard, having no idea what he’s doing, slowly and methodically writes down every bit of info on all 8 of our passports, taking at least 30 minutes to do so. So we start off on our smallish horses and it quickly becomes apparent that we are all a bit larger than the typical Panamanians riding these horses. Our feet, at least mine, don’t fit well in the stirrups, and poor Dan’s feet probably come w/in a foot of the ground, being over 6’6”. Paul, being the only one of us in good shape, chooses to hike up the 2000’ gain, probably 7-8 miles. But the rest of us struggle on, beating our poor underpowered horses. After a few hours it gets dark, and we do the last couple of hours in the pitch black, stumbling around hoping our horses know where to go. All in all we were very lucky not to have anyone get seriously hurt. Several of the guys fall off, Dan fairly seriously, but no broken bones. I was never so glad to get somewhere in my life. Once we manage to collapse off our horses, we ‘only’ have 10 minutes more to stagger uphill, a very steep hill. But we get to the top and drop dead. Once we get fed, which turns out to be excellent, we recover a bit, but we’re all pretty slow the next day. Naps are considered a good idea all around. My feeling is this place is good for young folk and those in good enough shape to make the hike. If you want to ride, you should be maybe 150 pounds, w/200 pounds as the absolute outside limit, and hopefully under 6 feet tall. Of course many gringo tourists, especially older ones like us, don’t meet those criteria. It also helps to have good knees, another weak point of several in our group. The trail is not only steep but rocky and covered in leaves in many places, so you can’t see the rocks as they roll out from under your feet. All in all, an exciting experience I wouldn’t plan to do again. And this is the dry season. Al was planning on bringing a group here next August, in the wet season, and I can’t imagine hiking up the trail when it’s slippery in the pouring rain. There’s also no electricity, as their generator was broken. We of course have hauled in our own generators for black lighting for moths, so we at least have some power at night.
Mon/Tues/Wed Feb 13/14/15 – we have 3 full days, 4 nights, to explore around the trails. There are some good butterflies around, John especially gets some nice metalmarks and hairstreaks. He finds a good light gap in the forest and lurks around there for a couple of days. We tend to get 1 of this species and 1 of another, except for Eunica pusilla which appears to be having a nice hatch. We get lots of females, which I have never seen. The guys are all very nice and let me photograph whatever they catch, which is helpful as most of what I see is out of photographic range. But the guys w/the nets can grab some. The beetle guys get a pretty good selection, over 40 genera which pleases them. I bet there is a lot more flying in the wet season, if you can get up here. I will be eager to hear how Al’s group does in August. The last day Dan is trying to catch a fresh Parrhasius orgia from the deck of the lower cabins, but it keeps landing on a tree just out of reach. So Michael, being clever, fashions a stick on a small rope and throws it out to the tree, entangling it in the branches, and hauls the small tree closer and ties it off on the porch. After several swings and adventures, fortunately the hairstreak keeps coming back to the same tree, and Dan finally catches it. It turns out to be a female, I’ve never seen a female so determined to return to the same place. One morning I find an ant swarm and sit and watch it for an hour or so. Not tons of bird species, but some good ones. There are about half a dozen ocellated antbirds, one of the gaudy species, and one I’ve only seen at ant swarms. Lots of bicolored antbirds, they come very close to me, and 3 or 4 different woodcreepers. Lots of Rusty Woodcreepers and a big Barred Woodcreeper, and lots of Black-striped. I haven’t seen an ant swarm in a couple of years, so this one is really enjoyable.
Thur Feb 16 – we have to ride back out, which several of us have been dreading, but it goes fairly well. I walk and ride, alternating about half and half, walking down the steeper parts. This makes it easier on the horse and lets my knees stretch out from the riding. I’m not near as worn out as the trip up, plus it’s much much easier doing it in the daylight. I even see king vultures on the way down. The only snag on the return trip is the guys w/the luggage horses take forever. We all make it down to the waiting spot, where our cars are, then have to wait 2 hours for our luggage. In my opinion this is inexcusable, to make the paying clients wait several hours after 4+ hours of riding. The baggage guys claim the horses couldn’t carry the weight, they need to get bigger horses, or maybe mules, if they want to take up older clients. By the time we make it back to Panama City it is 6:30 or 7pm, and we skipped lunch on the way back. The Canal Inn doesn’t have enough rooms, this is beginning to sound like a broken record, so poor Al has to take 2 of us to the Amador, then go pick up 2 more coming in at 10 pm. The rest of us crash after another pig out at Pencas. My favorite thing there is the mango batidos, or smoothie, absolutely delicious. They also have passion fruit, so it’s a very tough choice. Just have to go twice. This group has two favorite restaurants in Panama City, Pencas which is near the Amador Causeway, and the favorite, Jimmy’s Greek place downtown closer to the airport. (gives you an idea how important food was to us, I mention the restaurants twice!) With traffic it can take an hour to get to Jimmy’s at dinner time, which is a pain, but they have excellent steaks which the guys all love. I’ve been wanting to go to Crepes y Wafles, but don’t think it’s going to happen w/this meat and potatoes group.
Fri Feb 17 – Al has to take 3 of us to Albrook airport for the 7am flight to David, than the rest of us are on the 9:15 flight. We all make it to David, get 3 rental cars, of course the original reservations aren’t any good so Al has to scrounge up another car. Fortunately there are 5 car rental companies at the airport. We make it to the nice restaurant in Volcan at Hotel Dos Rios by shortly after noon, then up to Finca Hartmann by 3 or so. What a treat to get here in the light. Last year we drove from Panama City and due to a variety of delays didn’t get here until about 9pm. More stumbling around in the dark. So it’s very nice to get here in time for the moth guys to set up their lights, unpack and settle in. I score by getting the small cabin to myself, such luxury. This keeps me away from the night moth/beetle activities. I even have a little table to work on the computer. This is a beautiful place. Lots of Leptophobia aripa flying, we’ll see if we can find much else, it’s very dry.
Sat Feb 18 – last night those working the black light got a pretty good haul, including several Chrysinae beetles, the gold shiny ones. Always big crowd pleasers. There are two or three species here, a gold one and a bigger green one, and a larger silver one. When I wake up at dawn it’s in the high 50’s in my room, but comfortable w/the blankets. Down in the big house John has the fire going and Bill makes tasty omelets for breakfast, life is good. There isn’t any electricity except what you create if you bring a generator, so my little cabin only has a kerosene lamp and candles, very romantic. We brought generators for the black lights, so you can charge batteries and laptops at night at the big house. The dawn is perfectly clear, not a cloud in the sky, but it takes the sun a while to get over the mountain and onto our clearing, about 9am. When I was here last August it was raining and chilly. Walking the trails I head right at the ‘Y’ and up into the forest, not seeing much until about 10am as it warms up. Suddenly by 10:30 there are Marpesia marcella zipping around the trees, one we didn’t see last August. Now they are common. Along with the Morpho helenor maritita subspecies w/the blue line just on the forewing, very different looking, and some clearwings. We wander around the hills and coffee plantations of Finca Hartmann for the day. There are several forested areas with lots of edge around the coffee. There are a couple of trails that head up into the hills that go forever, or working the road back that we came in on can be good. There aren’t as many butterflies as last August, when I was here before, but we find plenty of stuff.
Sun Feb 19 – we drive over to Rio Candela about 5,600’, into La Amistad National Park. We park the cars at a clearing where a stream comes into a larger stream and split up into several directions. I walk uphill several hundred feet and find several species of crescents and lots of clearwings. We end up with a nice selection of clearwings, plus yellow kite swallowtails. No satyrs, which seems odd, and very few hairstreaks. Paul catches a large hairstreak that neither Dan nor John knows what it is, so that’s very interesting, and John finds a quetzal up above. Bellbirds are clanging away, it’s a beautiful place to spend the day. On our way back we step over the border and buy soft drinks at a little market in Costa Rica, no border guards here at all. We go through Serena, looking for ice, but can’t find any. We stop to visit the Hartmanns at their house and see their baby anteater, which crawls all over several of the guys. Its fur is very stiff, and with that long pointed face and the eyes sticking out on the side it is a bizarre looking little creature, but very friendly. It has strong claws, they don’t break your skin but you can certainly feel them grab on, and its tail wraps around peoples’ necks and holds on tightly. You can tell it climbs well.
Mon Feb 20 – we are scheduled to move to Mt. Totumas today for three nights, but there is some concern about them having enough room for the 10 of us. So Al, Bill and I drive over to check it out first. 20 minutes back to pavement, about another 20 minutes back towards Volcan and we turn off on the dirt road to Mt. Totumas. This turns out to be a tough road, it takes us an hour to do a bit less than 10 km. Very rough and rocky, fording a couple of streams, we climb from about 5,200’ to 6,300’ at the lodge, most of it the last 2 km past the Pozas Terminales, or hot springs which are about 7 km in. The lodge is a beautiful building w/a nice deck out the back and hummingbird feeders, we’re greeted by violet saberwings, one of my favorite hummers. But they only have 3 bedrooms in the main house, and they have another guest coming today. Jeff and Alma, the hosts, are extremely friendly and gracious. They are building a 2nd building which is not quite finished, and they have put 3 beds and 3 pallets on the floor in a giant sort of dorm room, but our folks aren’t going to be too happy like this, so we decide to stay at Finca Hartmann tonight and a few of us will come back tomorrow. Jeff, the owner, shows us the stump the quetzals are nesting in, just 70 meters in back of the lodge. They laid eggs last year the first week of May, and he says they are excavating a new hole this year. I want to come back and explore. There won’t be as many butterflies, but some different ones, and if it is cool and foggy I can always go birding. Alma is going to cook us dinner for $15 each, but we are responsible for our breakfast and lunch. Their main house is a regular house, w/a full kitchen and living room, nice view windows, very plush. They generate their own electricity w/a turbine on their stream, so they have power 24/7, which is a luxury. They even have internet during the day, as they are high enough to get a sight on the tower, but it is solar powered, so only works when the sun is up.
Tue Feb 21 – 2 cars head over to Mt. Totumas, John and I plan to stay at least one night, and the others are doing a day trip. Apparently the beetle guys don’t want the hassle of moving their black lights. So John and I will be the guinea pigs and see what we find. Other moth people have collected here, they just ran the sheet on the porch. We are sitting on their nice porch, watching 9 species of hummingbirds, when the pair of quetzals fly overhead, to much screaming and general excitement all around. There are lots of trails here, you can walk up to Amistad National Park and over the continental divide, if you’re a strong hiker. Several of the guys gets some good Pedaliodes w/a lovely rufous wash on the ventral forewing, which I’ve not seen before. Later Tomasz Pyrcz tells me it is P.lithochalcis, which he has split off from dejecta. The others leave and John and I stay for a tasty steak dinner. Jeff and Alma know how to buy their meat, as their steak is dramatically better than what we had at our place the night before, which was so tough we didn’t even eat all of it. They tell us you have to ask the butcher for filet, its $4/pound instead of the $1.60/pound Al had bought ours for. Unfortunately it’s very windy tonight, and the sheets John and Jeff put up are blown to shreds. John does get some good sphinx moths and some other things, but Jeff tells us the best time to come is July/August, the rainy time, and there is much less wind. Guess we’ll have to come back. Jeff had saved me a ‘huge skipper’ that was in his kitchen a week ago, but it turns out to be Pycina zamba, a beautiful Nymphalid that is hard to catch.
Wed Feb 22 – we get up, eat breakfast and drink their tasty coffee, and slowly work our way down the bad road. We head over to Rio Candela to meet the rest of our group and don’t get there until about noon. While we’re making sandwiches out of the back of the car another Pycina zamba zooms in and lands on John’s back, where Bill snags it. Bad timing for it, good for us. After sandwiches I work across the stream where Al has dumped a bunch of pee, and the Marpesia marcella are coming in, so I can get good dorsals and ventrals, plus a bunch of crescents. Then we drive on up the road several km further in, up to about 6,150’, where it is good forest. We meet the local ranger, a nephew of Don Chicho from Finca Hartmann (small world) who warns us to watch out for a female jaguar who has cubs and is dangerous. Too bad, no sign of the jaguar, but we do get lots of new butterflies for the list. Another good day, we’ll be sorry to leave the mountains tomorrow. The beetle guys have done very well, 54 genera of beetles.
Thur Feb 23 – drive back to David and fly to Panama City, where we stay at the Amador Causeway Ocean View Hotel again for 2 nights, pigging out again at Jimmy’s.
Fri Feb 24 – back to Santa Rita ridge for the final day’s collecting w/the group. We find a number of new species flying, as compared to our earlier trip a few weeks ago. Dan gets a different pair of Symmachia metalmarks, which turns out to be new for Panama as S.multesima, Bill gets a fresh Eunica auarcana, and several other new species show up. For our final group dinner Al takes us to the Miraflores locks, which is always fun. We have their fancy buffet and watch the ships pass through the locks. Being as it is Friday during Lent, they have nothing but fish, good thing we all like fish.
Sat Feb 25 – Al takes me and 2 others to El Valle for the day, where they drop me off at Kevin’s house outside Coronado after we explore the trail at the Hotel Campestre. It is very dry and we see few butterflies, as compared to last August when it was a fabulous place for clearwings. However Al scores with a female Lyropteryx lyra, the beautiful Cherry-bordered Metalmark. He’s never seen this species in over 30 years of collecting in Panama. I’ve only seen female specimens a few times, never a male.
Sun Feb 26 – Kevin and I head back to El Valle, where I have reservations at Los Capitanes, a nice hotel run by a German. We stop to drop off my luggage and run into the owner, who invites us to go higher to his new eco-lodge in the woods at Rio Indio Arriba, maybe another 20 km up the bad dirt road. The cost is $60/person including 3 meals, as compared to $44 to stay at Los Capitanes w/out meals. Kevin had heard he was building a new place but didn’t know it was open, so we say yes. We follow him up the rough road in Kevin’s car, which is 4 wheel drive. It turns out to be a charming place, built out of stone and wood, decent rooms but w/a shared toilet and shower, and only cold water. A propane water heater would make it much nicer. But it is right on a pretty stream, and we see some nice butterflies. Again I’m sure it would be much better in July/August. We hike up the trail from the cabins maybe a mile or so, up and down over several ridges and ravines, and most of the area is being turned into small homesteads. People are living everywhere up here in the hills, w/their dogs and their chickens and their kids. We do see some fresh satyrs but nothing wildly exciting.
Mon Feb 27 – we drive as far up the road as we can, then get out and walk. Kevin has been up here many times. He says this road is only about 2 years old, and already wearing down. We see a few things flying, but our main score of the morning is a very fresh female metalmark who poses nicely on some tiny flowers on a low tree branch, Hypophylla zeurippa. That afternoon back at the lodge the guys find and kill a large fer-de-lance snake right by the cabins. It is over 4’ long and fairly thick, I wouldn’t have wanted to run into it on a midnight run to the toilet.
Tue Feb 28 – we take our time heading back on the road towards El Valle, and Kevin takes me to another of his favorite spots. On our way in we had turned left at the T, past the chicken ranches, so now we continue on straight to the right hand side, instead of going back, and come to a trail at Cerro Gaital preserve. We find a crew whacking away and removing all weeds, making a very wide trail, you could drive up it, but we still see some butterflies. Emesis cypria and one of my favorite skippers Mnestheus ittona, the one w/the beautiful white curves, are soaking up the sun and posed nicely.
Wed Feb 29 – Kevin takes me up to La Laguna, the next road south or east of his turn off a few km past Coronado. We go up about 30-40 minutes to almost 3,300’ where there is a very pretty little lake. They have made it into a park, however, and have a chain on the entrance where you have to pay .50 and it doesn’t open until 9:30am. We park outside and walk over the chain and around the lake. Kevin says 5 years ago he couldn’t walk around the lake, it was so overgrown, but now they have cleared it all and it is too immaculate. But we find a trail off into the brush in the back, climb under a fence and find lots of bugs. Everywhere is changing so fast here in Panama, many houses are being built and the older wild areas are rapidly disappearing. Afterwards we had back to Kevin’s house, pick up Sandy his wife and they take me into Panama City, about 2 hours, where she does their big shopping and he drops me off at the Riande Hotel near the airport. Al had made a reservation for me, and supposedly paid for it, but not according to the hotel, where I had to pay w/my credit card. It’s been a fun trip, but South America is better. Panama is growning and changing so quickly, it has a real boom town feel to it. Hard to imagine what it will be like In another 5-10 years.