Creatures of the canopy
Exotic wildlife-watching in Panama’s rainforests
What has happened to the view? It is 5.30am and I am first up on the deck, binoculars in one hand and field guide in the other. But yesterday’s breathtaking forest panorama has been swallowed by a peasouper. Perhaps I should have stayed in bed.
Happily, the mist hasn’t fazed the birds. The branches of the cecropia tree immediately below are already aflutter with tanagers and euphonias. And as my eyes adjust to the murk, I make out others. There’s a black-cheeked woodpecker bounding up the trunk; a jaunty party of collared aracaris brandishing finger-length fruit like Groucho Marx cigars in their outsized bills.
Backstage, meanwhile, the awakening forest cranks up the soundtrack. The whine of the cicadas clicks in as though at the flick of a switch, while a keel-billed toucan starts up its comb-rasping “krrit, krrit” and a giant tinamou whistles mournfully from the depths. And from further down the slopes a throaty roaring swells the mist like a cross-channel foghorn. “Howler monkeys,” confirms my guide, Alexis Sanchez, seeing me start at this unearthly noise. He has materialised discreetly alongside me and is readying his telescope for the dawn vigil. “It’s territorial,” he says. “They start every day like this.”
Soon my companions are emerging through the hatch, cradling coffee cups as they take up familiar positions. After four days, our pre-breakfast routine is as territorial as any forest primate’s. With the sun burning off the mist, revealing on one horizon a silver ribbon of canal and on the other the gleaming towers of the distant capital, the sightings come thick and fast — red-tailed squirrel to the right; squirrel cuckoo to the left. We cluster around Sanchez, jostling for a glimpse of whatever he’s captured in his scope.
For the three-toed sloth suspended just below me, however, there are no such histrionics. This same individual was on the exact same branch yesterday. As I watch, one shaggy limb extends in t’ai chi slow-motion towards a neighbouring branch. Grappling-hook claws clutch briefly at empty air then, as if on reflection, return to their original grip. Why move to branch two, after all, when branch one still has leaves enough for another morning’s munching?
So begins day four at the Canopy Tower, Panama’s most celebrated wildlife-watching bolthole. Perched atop the forested Semaphore Hill in Soberania National Park, just outside Panama City, this incongruous lighthouse-like structure was once a US radar station. Local conservationist Raul Arias de Para has converted it into an ingenious wildlife facility that doubles as research station and tourist lodge. Inside, the living quarters retain a no-frills functionality. But the beauty of the place comes on the top floor, where a circular lounge-dining room looks out directly into the treetops and, best of all, a ceiling hatch opens on to an outdoor observation deck, commanding a 360-degree vista of rainforest canopy. It’s a roof garden to beat all roof gardens.
With so much of their wildlife hidden in the treetops, rainforests can be frustrating places at ground level. That’s why this toucan’s-eye view of the action is so special. And our viewing doesn’t stop at dawn; lunch yesterday brings a 2m-long iguana clambering up to diningroom window level as we munch on our avocado salad. And after dinner, as we settle in sofas to tot up the day’s sightings, Sanchez’s torch reveals first a kinkajou — a lithe, fruit-eating carnivore — slinking along a branch, then a black-and-white owl perched lower down, its two-tone plumage etched with a calligraphist’s delicacy. These treetop vigils are addictive: both the checking-in daily with characters we have come to know as individuals, and the constant possibility of spotting something new, such as the punk-coiffured Geoffroy’s tamarins that yesterday came scampering around the deck. It would be easy to spend the whole week up top, moving no further than a sloth, but Sanchez has other treats in store.
Day one sees us tramping down Semaphore Hill, where we find that exploring the forest on foot is very different from peering into it from above. At first it is maddening, a lot of awkward neck-craning producing little more than glimpses. But slowly, under the patient direction of Alex and his eagleeyed assistant Domi, we adjust our perspective, crouching to inspect an industrious stream of leafcutter ants ferrying their jigsaw-piece trophies, or admiring the electric-blue pulse of a morpho butterfly flitting through the gloom. With practice, we become more alive to movement. There’s an agouti pattering over the leaf litter; an anolis lizard scampering up a trunk. Our guides, of course, keep some aces up their sleeves, and two night monkeys peering wide-eyed from their tree hole earn a chorus of gasps.
The truck allows us to explore further afield. On day two we drive north to the Pipeline Road, named after never-completed World War II plans for an alternative oil supply in the event of an attack on the Panama Canal. Today this forest track is famed for its bird life. Our tally includes soft-hooting trogons and motmots, which hide their finery in the shadows, and a pageant of hummingbirds — gems such as blue-throated golden tail and violet-crowned wood nymph — that zip around the feeders at the information centre with high-octane urgency.
On day three we venture further, to San Lorenzo National Park, on the Caribbean coast. There is no sign of the jaguars that reputedly haunt its forests, but we spy a tree-climbing anteater known as a tamandua that has descended to cross the road. Rubbery-nosed coatis snuffle through the leaf litter and a troupe of white-faced capuchin monkeys crash through the branches overhead, venting their outrage in a hail of sticks.
The humidity at the coast is stifling. Cameras fog as we munch sandwiches among the ruins of 16th-century San Lorenzo Fort, built by the conquistadors to protect the gold route from Peru. But our return to the capital by airconditioned tourist train, downing cold beers from the buffet car as swamp and forest rattles past the window, is a delight. The track winds alongside the Panama Canal, a miracle of engineering that claimed almost 30,000 lives in its brutal construction and now ferries about 333 mil-
Canopy Tower, a former radar station, top; rufous-crested coquette, above centre; Soberania National Park, above left; brown-throated sloth, above; harpy eagle, below