December 23, 2000 - January 2, 2001

Allen & Nancy Chartier

Trip Log
     Day 1       Day 6
     Day 2       Day 7
     Day 3       Day 8
     Day 4       Day 9
     Day 5       Day 10
                     Day 11

Bird List
Day 1, Saturday, December 23, 2000
We got up this morning at the irritating hour of 3:30 a.m. in order to catch our Continental Airlines flight departing at 6:20 a.m. for Houston. Despite the early hour, it was already crowded due to the holidays, but it wasn’t as bad as we expected. Our flight departed almost an hour late and we arrived in Houston just before 9:00 local time. We killed time at the airport until our 1:20 p.m. flight. We didn’t feel like going outside as the temperature was only about 50 degrees, but that was 50 degrees warmer than Detroit!

Our flight departed from Houston at about 1:40 p.m. and after about 4-½ hours we arrived in Panama City around 6:30 p.m. local time (Panama is on Eastern Standard Time). After a somewhat slow immigration and customs process, we met Hernan Arauz in front of the airport. He had shaved off his beard since Allen had seen him last November, so he didn’t recognize him until he shouted "Hello Allen!"

Hernan drove us to The Canopy Tower Lodge, about a 2 hour drive from the airport. They prepared an excellent dinner for us in mere minutes, even though it was nearly 9:00 p.m. After dinner we settled in to our room on the highest floor with rooms, just below the dining area, which was one level below the topmost observation deck.

Day 2, Sunday, December 24, 2000
The staff at the Canopy Tower generously agreed to make us breakfast at 5:30 a.m. Hernan met us at 6:00 and we went to the famous Pipeline Road. Hernan had a Land Rover that allowed us to go in farther than if we had walked in from the locked gate (he also had a key). The birding was great (100 species seen in the morning) and lots of other neat things too including: Coatimundi, Central American Agouti, and White-faced Capuchin among the mammals, and Common Amieva (Amieva amieva), lots of frogs (including a tiny toad with an orange nose, elbows, and knees), and best of all a Vine Snake (PHOTO). There were lots of Morpho butterflies as well as several Heliconias including one with blue on it that Allen caught. It had the numbers 323 written in pencil on the under side of a white band on each wing! The Smithsonian does a lot of research along this road, but what are the odds that we would catch one of their marked ones? Dragonflies were everywhere and two different species of giant damselfly (PHOTO) were pretty neat. A 2-inch orange and black banded Robber Fly got away before it could be caught or photographed.

We returned to the Canopy Tower for lunch, then watched the hummingbird feeders for a while. It was rather windy so not much was in evidence from the canopy observation deck. We had dinner at 7:00 p.m., then watched the nocturnal "feeders," which were bunches of bananas hung in the trees near the lodge. We saw another Coatimundi, an opossum, and a Kinkajou which we’d been wanting to see since our first trip to the tropics in 1983.

Day 3, Monday, December 25, 2000
We were up at 5:30 a.m. so we could get to the top of the Canopy Tower by 6:00. By breakfast at 7:30 we had seen all three species on their T-shirt (Green Shrike-Vireo, Masked Tityra, and Blue Cotinga). Now we’ll have to buy one!

After breakfast, we walked down the 1 ½ mile Semaphore Hill Road to the Plantation Trail into Soberania NP. We walked a short distance on this trail before we had to head back up the hill for lunch. We found an antswarm on the way down with several interesting birds, but the activity had diminished quite a bit by the time we returned past the spot. There were lots of Geoffroy’s Tamarins and a few White-faced Capuchins along the road. The Olivaceous Woodcreeper we saw was a new bird for the area, and we found out from Raul, the owner of the Canopy Tower, that the Blackpoll Warbler we saw in the morning from the observation deck was not only a new species for the area, but rare in Panama. He gave us two free T-shirts for adding these species to the list!

Around 3:00 p.m. we set out to repeat our walk from the morning, hoping to get a bit farther along this time. We looked into the White-whiskered Puffbird nest we had discovered in the morning, and found it contained two young with eyes open. Other highlights were Yellow-headed Caracara and Tawny-capped Euphonia along the Plantation Trail, neither of which are on Raul’s list, though he doesn’t include this trail in his compilation. Two more free T-shirts tomorrow? There was an interesting small Anole that was all black with a dark brown head. Coming back up the road we flushed a Great Tinamou out of the ditch next to the road. We spent half an hour on top of the Canopy Tower before we showered and had dinner. There were lots of guests arriving today, most just for a single night. Some noticeable activity in the hallway turned out to be some of the other guests looking at an interesting Praying Mantis with a large green shield on its thorax.

Day 4, Tuesday, December 26, 2000
Since others were getting a 5:30 breakfast (to go to Pipeline Road), we took advantage and ate early so we could get farther down Semaphore Hill Road and walk a fair portion of the Plantation Trail. We got to the trailhead at 7:30 and walked in for 1 ½ hours (about 2 miles). It was fairly quiet, but we saw a few things including a troop of a dozen Coatimundis, and of course "the usual" Geoffroy’s Tamarins. We returned to the lodge just before noon, 6 hours and 7 miles later. After lunch we killed some time taking photos at the hummingbird feeders, and reorganizing our luggage for the flight tomorrow (weight limit 25 lbs per person). It started raining (first time for the trip) just before 5:00 and the Howler Monkeys (heard daily so far) really complained. Two Kinkajous were at the "feeder" during dinner.
Day 5, Wednesday, December 27, 2000
We were up on the observation deck of the Canopy Tower at 6:00 for one last look before breakfast at 7:30. Raul called us from Panama City to say goodbye and wish us well, which we thought was a nice gesture. We were picked up at 8:00 and driven to the Holbrook domestic airport. Our driver, Edgar, didn’t speak English, but our worries about getting most of our luggage to the Ancon office were unfounded, as he knew what we needed.

We ran into a snag at the airport, as we had no tickets and no boarding passes issued to us. Edgar hadn’t left yet, and helped us figure out the situation. We were on a charter flight by ourselves. The flight was a bit over an hour late, and another Ancon representative came out to the airport to apologize.

We got underway in a 6-seat single-engine Cessna (like at Kapawi Lodge three years ago). After about an hour and a half we landed at the airstrip at Cana. We met our guide, Rick Morales, and the three staff (one the cook). Since the four people who were at Cana before us were leaving, we would be the only ones here for the next four days (except for three military police, a.k.a. Maytag repairmen). Cana is a two-day walk from the nearest small village. One more staff person was encountered along the Boca del Cupe trail where he had ridden by horseback 15 hours from that very village to get to Cana. This is the most remote place we’ve ever stayed.

Day 6, Thursday, December 28, 2000
We were up at 6:00 a.m. for some early birding around the camp, then we had breakfast around 7:30. At 9:15 we started up the Cerro Pirre trail. Luckily it only rained briefly last night, so the trail wouldn’t be as wet and slippery, and treacherous as Rick said it could be. We don’t do treacherous very well.

About half way up the trail it started to rain. It rained for about an hour, just long enough to make it slippery. It was also very hot in our raincoats. Among the birds, we saw some Central American Spider Monkeys, a few White-faced Capuchins, and some Mantled Howler Monkeys. In the mud, we saw several tapir tracks. At 2:45 p.m. we arrived at the Cerro Pirre tented camp, 5 ½ hours and 6.2 kilometers later, and 2300 feet higher. We had hoped to see some orchids on this trail, but the habitat was more like a hilly rainforest, and there were not too many epiphytic plants on the trees. We found an interesting and colorful grasshopper (PHOTO) near the scenic overlook near camp.  We did a little birding around the camp before dinner, and retired early for the evening.

Day 7, Friday, December 29, 2000
We were up at 6:15 a.m. after an all-night rain, of which about 3 hours were very hard. We birded briefly around the camp, then after breakfast started up to the cloud forest on Cerro Pirre (about 2 kilometers each way, rising another 1000 feet). The rain had made the trail slippery, but we hadn’t seen anything yet. After about an hour, it started raining hard again, and kept up for about 2 hours. It stopped raining for about ½ hour, then started again even harder! By the time we got back down to the camp at 2 p.m. parts of the trail were like a river. This made the narrow, difficult to follow, rocky, muddy, steep, overgrown trail really treacherous. As stated previously, we don’t do treacherous very well. We did manage to see a few birds between the rain showers, including the "critical" few endemics, but there is so much more here that we didn’t see. The group that left before us didn’t have any rain, and the trail was dry for them. They weren’t birders. We got some very good looks at spider monkeys, and found Puma tracks in the trail.

Rick said this all-night and all-day rain was very unusual for this time of year (it was supposed to be the dry season). Once again a freak weather pattern sought us out as on so many of our previous trips. We found out after we got home that they had so much rain in Panama City that they had to release 1.2 billion gallons of water into the ocean to prevent the Panama Canal from bursting! This was the first time in 15 years this had to be done.

As this trail took us up into real cloud forest, we again expected to see orchids. But again the forest really looked like a transition between rain forest and true cloud forest. There weren’t too many bromeliads either, so we didn’t have a chance to find our first Neotropical species of salamander.

In the afternoon, it cleared for about an hour before starting to rain again at 4:15 p.m. The rain stopped for the day at 6:00 and we turned in for the night at 7:00.

Day 8, Saturday, December 30, 2000
We were up at 6:15 for breakfast, then started down the trail for Cana camp at around 7:00. It seemed much longer going down, since it took us 6 hours due to the very steep, rocky, muddy, slippery, treacherous trail conditions. There were relatively few birds until near the end, when we ran into a fairly decent mid-level flock. At least it didn’t rain until we were across the airstrip on our final 50 yards. On getting to the airstrip, we had to wait while a military helicopter came in to land. They were changing shifts of the guard here, which they do once a month. They also delivered a turkey along with the new guards. It rained off and on until around 3:30. There was a small gecko of some native species that was hunting on the porch, keeping mostly out of sight.

We then walked part of the Mine Trail and part of another that headed back up the Pirre Ridge (yikes!). We quit this one, having had enough steep trails for one day, and found a good canopy flock on the way back. We had dinner at 6:30 and turned in right afterwards to rest our beat-up feet, if nothing else. Since the sky was partly clear, we had an excellent view of Jupiter, Saturn, and Venus. The moons of Jupiter were easy to see in binoculars, and even the rings of Saturn were just barely visible in 10x binoculars. In the 60x telescope, the rings were very nicely visible.

Day 9, Sunday, December 31, 2000
We were up at 6:15 a.m. for some birding before breakfast around the camp. Then we walked the Mine Trail in its entirety, and more of the trail leading up the Cerro Pirre Ridge where we were yesterday. There was only one antswarm, and it was a rather long way away from the trails so we couldn’t pursue it. It also didn’t sound like a particularly enthusiastic congregation anyway.

We returned to camp just after noon to hear that the Black-tipped Cotinga, one of our "must see" birds, had been around, but left 20 minutes before we arrived. This species apparently prefers to sit up on treetops only on sunny afternoons.

Then, the sun went away. Soon, however, Rodolpho (the caretaker who had helped Alexander Wetmore collect and skin birds in the 1940s) called out "cotinga!" It was high on a far ridge, and we got it in the scope. Then it started to rain. Then it rained really hard. The cotinga stayed put the whole time. A lifer at the last possible minute, 30 minutes before our plane out was scheduled to arrive.

Our plane arrived at 2:30 and we had to take off without Rick as the runway was too short for the 6-seater Cessna to take off with three passengers plus luggage. The plan was to fly 12 minutes to the tiny town of El Real, where there was a longer paved runway, leave us off, then go back and get Rick, then take off from the longer airstrip. Sound’s simple doesn’t it? It wasn’t. When we were coming in for a landing, crosswinds at the end of the runway caused us to wobble quite a bit, which prevented the pilot from pulling us up as much as we needed to. As a result, we came down pretty hard. The result was that the brakes failed and we rolled right off the end of the runway into a tall canegrass field. The pilot got us back onto the tarmac, but until a mechanic could be flown in from Panama City, we were stranded.

One thing didn’t lead to another and no plane arrived before dark. Since there weren’t any lights on the runway (nothing but a runway, in fact), no plane would be coming after dark. We found out later that the plane that was sent out for us was on another mission to look for a small plane that had disappeared during the heavy rains on December 29. It was late getting back to Panama City to refuel, and all available planes were looking for this downed plane; nothing was available to "rescue" us. At least we saw a few new birds for the trip, including one last life bird (Spectacled Parrotlet), along with lots of parrots going to roost for the night. We had to sleep overnight in town, where there were no real hotels and no restaurants. Our dinner consisted of some cheese and crackers, and an Orange Crush, purchased at a small store that was still open (it was New Year’s eve, after all). I’ll leave out most of the details of being taken into custody, passport checks, and questioning about Colombia by the local Policia Nacional. What a day!

Day 10, Monday, January 1, 2001
El Real was possibly the worst place for two tired, stressed travelers to spend New Year’s Eve. The parties started around 7:00 p.m. and were very loud with crackling microphones. There were at least four bars with music or live entertainment within a couple of blocks. The building right across the road (maybe 20 feet away from our room) was having some kind of religious revival in some language other than English or Spanish. They kept up constant yelling (seemingly without a breath) with 3-4 people on microphones yelling simultaneously for about 1-½ hours. We could barely hear each other from about a foot away all night long. The revival stopped around 1:00 a.m., but the other bars continued loudly until we left the town for the airstrip at 6:00 a.m. We had gotten about 1-2 hours of sleep. We had to carry our luggage about ½ mile to the airstrip.

Marco, from Ancon Expeditions, had called the police station last night and explained to us what was planned for this morning. The plane that was promised had left Panama City at 6:00 a.m., but didn’t arrive on time at 6:45 because the airstrip was fogged in! The plane had to land nearby at La Palma to wait for the low cloud to lift. The clouds lifted around 9:00 a.m. and the plane arrived around 9:15. We landed at Tocumen International Airport (Rick was on his own at this point!) in Panama City at 10:15 and the pilots led us up to the Continental Airlines check-in counter where Edgar (our Ancon driver) was waiting with the rest of our luggage. It was now 10:20, the scheduled departure time of our flight, and they wouldn’t let us check in. They also hadn’t paged us to the gate even though we were confirmed on the flight. There were no other flights to Houston, and few other flights to the US. All possible flights to the U.S. were completely booked, or overbooked. They couldn’t put us on any flights, but were only able to put us on tomorrow’s Houston flight on standby! The flight was oversold by 50%, but at least we were first on the standby list.

Edgar drove us to the very nice Hotel Ejecutivo in Panama City, where we spent the rest of the day relaxing, eating lunch and dinner, and birding on the bay a few blocks away, another opportunity to add to our Panama bird list. We both called in to work to let them know we wouldn’t be in to work the next day due to our little adventure.

Day 11, Tuesday, January 2, 2001
We were up at 5:00 a.m. to reorganize our luggage and go down to the hotel restaurant for breakfast (good planning, as it turned out). The Ancon driver (a young woman this time, not Edgar, but again speaking no English) met us at the hotel at 6:20 and drove us to the airport. We waited in line at the Continental Airlines counter until it opened at 7:00. We couldn’t get confirmed on the flight, but verified that we still were first on the standby list. We got to the gate and waited as passenger after passenger arrived late, and they paged several confirmed passengers until 10:45. It’s very unfair that they didn’t extend this courtesy to us yesterday. The flight ended up full and we were out of luck AGAIN.

One of the Continental Airlines staff (Francia Luiz) was very helpful, the first such person from Continental we’ve met so far. She managed to get us on an Iberia Airlines flight to Miami at 1:00 p.m. and got us "confirmed" American Airlines flights to Chicago then to Detroit, where we were expecting to arrive around midnight. We had to reclaim our bags and recheck in, but unfortunately our main bag had been put on the Houston flight that we couldn’t get on. Francia arranged for the bag to be transferred to the Continental flight to Detroit where we supposedly would be able to claim it.

The Iberia flight departed late at 1:50 p.m., making our connection with our Chicago flight very tight. At least we were on a plane headed for the US! The flight landed at 4:30 p.m. and we managed to get through immigration and customs in 30 minutes. We ran across the airport to the American Airlines gate, arriving at 5:05 for the 5:09 flight. They wouldn’t issue us a boarding pass at the gate, as they had no record of our reservation (confirmed?) in the computer. They told us there were 100 people on standby for this flight, and there was nothing they could do! How can a business run this way? They did nothing to help us, so we were on our own. We checked out the Northwest Airlines counter where there was a friendly, helpful person with nobody else waiting in line. She put us on standby on the 6:40 p.m. flight to Detroit, which would arrive at 9:00. We were first on the standby list, as she had listed us as "mishandled passengers," which was the most accurate thing we’d heard all day.

Not too hopeful, we went to the gate to wait and see if we got on the flight. The supervisor there eventually called us up and indicated that he could probably get us on the flight if we could get our ticket signed over from Continental to Northwest (it was signed over to American, which Northwest couldn’t honor). This was handled in the nick of time by another Continental Airlines person and we got on the flight. There are some people out there willing to help, but they’re hard to find and most of them don’t work for Continental.

We landed in Detroit at 9:45 and walked all the way across the airport to the Continental Airlines baggage claim area to see if our other bag had made it. The bag was not in their computer, and of course Continental wouldn’t take responsibility for the bag even though they were the last ones to handle it. They told us we had to file a claim with Northwest Airlines, as they were the last ones to "handle" us. So, back across the airport we went to file our claim.

We got home around 11:00 p.m. only to find that our screen door was frozen shut. We were locked out! We ended up prying the door open with a tire iron that we had in the trunk of the car. It’s great to be home! Our missing bag arrived the next day.