A Forest Escape

By Katrina Macht
July 24, 2002

hills of PanamaI'm sitting in the dining hall on BCI, looking out the window at Gatun Lake. I'm alone in the room, except for the staff, preparing for the evening meal. I love the quiet of this time of day. The lake is totally placid - I'm looking at a snail kite perched on a dead tree limb overhanging the water. He's been there for the last half hour - as long as I've been here. Actually, he's been in and out of that tree all afternoon. I was admiring him at lunch, too - perched regally on his branch, overseeing the events of his world, occasionally swooping down to catch some unsuspecting prey from the lake, only to return to his lookout point again.

What a day! A day already replete with remarkable wildlife experiences, and it's only the middle of the afternoon. After eating a quick early breakfast on the run, guide and naturalist extraordinaire, Greg Willis, took Lauren and me out for a divine five hour hike. Just the three of us. After yesterday's forced march, most of our fellow travelers were wary of another hike with Greg and chose a more tranquil morning excursion with Jackie instead. But today was no forced march. Enveloped in the forest's languid embrace, we took our time, as we traversed steep, slippery trails, looking for wildlife. The air was sticky and still, not even the of a whisper of a breeze; the saturated soil muffled the sound of our footsteps. We were a relaxed, mellow threesome, all focused on the same goal - the pursuit of animals. There was no need for a lot of chat and the morning proceeded with long, companionable silences. Silences that led to the discovery of a plethora of distinctive critters.

I mean, we saw trogons! Twice! How could it not have been an incredible hike!?! The morning started with a long look at several toucans flying in and out of the branches of the canopy - keel-billed and chestnut-mandibled. Throughout the morning we also spied red-tailed squirrels, until seeing them became commonplace - if that's possible. Particularly compelling was a mating chase. At least five males contested one another, as they jockeyed for the favor of a lone female. There were also sightings of a few agoutis, a tinamou, several antbirds (chestnut-backed, I think), and a troop of howler monkeys. We were actually encircled by the howlers, as we stood under the trees off the trail. Not bad for a morning's walk.

But the animal that took my breath away was the female violaceous trogon. Don't ask me why I have this dedicated passion for trogons, but I do. Perhaps it's their regal stature and resplendent coloration. Perhaps it's the sense memory of my first sighting in Costa Rica all those years ago. Whatever the reason, every time I see one my pulse races and I get weak in the knees. The credit for spotting this one goes to Lauren. Greg and I were ahead on the trail, wondering what had become of our companion - had we lost her - when up she walks to ask, "What is a brown bird with a gold breast, sitting on a low branch?" Somehow Greg perceived right away it might be a trogon and made a quick dash back down from where we came, this time with Lauren in the lead as our guide. Sure enough, there she was, just as Lauren had described, perched quietly on a low branch, posture erect, proudly displaying those beautiful black and white barred tail feathers hanging straight down. My first trogon of the season. I was instantly transported to an alternate universe and could have easily stood transfixed to that spot the remainder of the morning, enjoying her serene beauty. It made a spectacular hike unforgettable.

So, here I am, sitting in the dining hall on BCI, reveling in a riot of the senses - so happy to finally witness for myself this tropical "zoo without walls." What amazing discoveries lie in store for us in the day and half we have left before heading back to Gamboa? Are more trogons on my horizon? The wildlife I've seen in slightly more than 24 hours have already far exceeded my expectations. I dare not expect more. And yet ...