Archive for February, 2010

Our Kitchen and Dining Room; Before and After

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

We just completed the renovation of the kitchen and dining room. Pictures are worth a thousand words so let’s look first at the kitchen before the renovation……………..

And now AFTER

The new dining room table and kitchen cabinets were made in Volcan by Gabriel Rodriguez  who has a local wood shop. We support local businesses in Volcan instead of going to David to the big box stores where the furniture is all particle board and made somewhere far away.  Getting the cabinets to fit in the uneven dimensions of the kitchen was a challenge and we needed to also reinforce the cabinets to support the artisan Mexican tiles that we used for the counter tops.  The artisan tile work was Michael’s work of art and he extended his visit for 5 days to finish the job.

Fresh Roasted Organic Shade Grown Mount Totumas Cloud Forest Coffee

Saturday, February 27th, 2010

At the entrance of Mount Totumas Cloud Forest at around 1600m we have a small grove of shade grown coffee that was planted some 20 years ago. The dozen  trees are all well established and the only care they receive is the clearing away of underbrush by machete once a year in January when the fruit are ripe.  Roberto and his family have been harvesting this grove for their own consumption and roasting the coffee in the traditional way so today we’ll take you through the steps from harvest to a fresh roasted brewed cup of high elevation Panamanian coffee as enjoyed by the Rodriquez Montezuma family.  See the slide show at the bottom of this post which is arranged following the process from harvest to cup!

Harvesting is by hand.  Only the deep red fruit are picked as these have fully ripened beans.  The coffee bean is the seed of the coffee fruit.  The fruit has to be removed around the bean so that the bean can then be dried. Fresh harvested fruit are placed in a sack and submerged in water for several days to soften so that the coffee bean can easily be separated from the fruit mashing  by hand in a bucket.

Once the fruit flesh is removed the beans are laid out in the sun for up to 10 days to dry. We placed the beans every morning on a piece of corrugated galvanized aluminum zinc to dry out in the sun. Every evening the beans were returned to a bucket and the following morning once again spread out to dry. After a week the outer shell coating of the beans begin to crack and the beans are then placed in a sack and pounded with a stout branch or pole to remove completely the outer shell.  With the outer shell of the bean removed we now have a recognizable raw green coffee bean.

Next step is roasting. The beans are placed in a heavy metal pot over hot coals and are stirred constantly to insure an even roast. The beans go from raw green to a light brown and once a dark rich brown color is reached the aroma of the bean roasting starts to drift in the breeze.  Like all harvests, even the humble  small quantity we roasted,  there is a communal sense of joy we all shared.

With the roasting done we let the beans cool just enough to put them through the hand grinder producing fresh ground Mount Totumas Cloud Forest Coffee .  High elevation air, fresh coffee and surrounded by virgin cloud forest sets the spirits free.  There isn’t a café in Seattle or Zürich that can compete with this!

Additional posts will follow on our plans to expand our small grove by adding an additional grove at a higher elevation already identified as an ideal location by a coffee consultant we had visit our site a few months ago.

We’re plugged in and ambiguous about it!

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

We had internet installed at Mount Totumas Cloud Forest today. This is certainly important for logistics and communication especially for coordinating the arrival and departure of guests and contacting suppliers etc.  So this is a good thing.  To photograph a Resplendent Quetzal in the morning and share these images the same day with friends of Mount Totumas all around the world is also something to marvel out. At the same time however we have to acknowledge that something has been compromised with the arrival of the internet. A digital tentacle from the world has penetrated the isolated unplugged wilderness here and this tether feels invasive.

High Drama with our new calf number 393

Wednesday, February 17th, 2010

From MT – Cattle

Well, yesterday at the cow auction in Bugaba we purchased 7 young calves. William Yanguez delivered them to entrance of the Los Pozos road where we corralled them for the night. Early the next morning Roberto and Carlos left on horse-back at sunrise to round them up and bring them the 9km up the road to Mount Totumas.   They arrived late morning and we immediately held them in our corral to give them some of the initial vaccines and vitamins.  Vampire bats are a nuisance and transmit diseases and most of our cattle suffer from vampire bat bites on their necks. We treat them with a salve repellent that the bats don’t like.  Anyway this post is about the drama that unfolded late in the afternoon after we had released the new calves from the corral. Roberto came up and reported one of them was missing. They had wandered down to the entrance gate and we were afraid the one missing had crossed the river and was heading back down to the main road. We took the truck and the horses and the three of us searched in vain. None of the locals we came across on the road had seen the calf and there were no tracks by the river indicating a single calf print heading back down. So we assumed he was back up somewhere near the house. We searched again and eventually Carlos spotted him on a pasture at the edge of the forest. This calf was a mix between Simental (Swiss Brown) and Brahma,  its gangly ears gave away its Brahma blood. Roberto mentioned to me that these Brahma mixes can be uncooperative and this calf was dead set against cooperating with us when we tried to get him moving through a gate to join the rest of the herd. He just took off across the pasture and entered the forest looking more like a white-tailed deer than a cow! He entered a heavily forested area that has cliffs and waterfalls and is the steepest drop on the land.  We didn’t want to scare the calf so we quietly followed his tracks in the forest and eventually found him quite a ways in.  Failing to coax him back up to the pastures he once again went on a rampage and took off deeper in the forest until we saw the poor little guy drop over the edge of a steep drop off and Roberto looked over at me gravely and said, “Se mato” (he just killed himself). We expected the worst as we peered over the edge into the jungle below. We spotted the 400 lb calf lying still 40 feet below at the bottom of a canyon by the stream in deep tangled vegetation looking very much dead. He still had his tag number 393 from the auction which was visible on his back. We had to work our way around the cliff and eventually scrambled to the bottom and came up to the calf that was surprisingly still alive. We were even more surprised to find that the calf stood up and seemed ok, at least no bones broken. The place he dropped was all soft soils and looking up at the steep embankment it looks like he just rolled down and was somewhat cushioned by the thick underbrush. It was getting on toward nightfall and we were at the base of these cliffs in the middle of a jungle with deadfall and big rocks and in solid undergrowth steep on all sides except the stream cut that continued steeply down. There was no way this calf was moving far tonight. Carlos, Gabriel and I stayed put while Roberto went back for an Axe, flashlight, machetes and rope. Once he returned we were chopping dead fall tree logs and clearing with machetes a path to get the calf out of the predicament he was in. Once we got a path cleared down to the small quebrada we roped the calf and literally had to drag and pull that exhausted animal down to the stream and get it across and to a clearing in the forest we made where we roped him to a tree for the night. It was a moonless night and getting pitch dark at this time and the plan was to get back down here first thing in the morning and clear a trail with machetes down to a pasture where the stream meets the Rio Colorado. We headed back out of the forest with hundreds of fireflies as company. The next morning a path was cleared and the calf was rejoined with his six companions by midday. This was one lucky calf and we all had a good laugh over the whole ordeal and I heartedly thanked both Roberto and Carlos for their fine work in saving this calf.

Photo of the Week #1

Saturday, February 13th, 2010

During the time in 2010 that I will be on site I will post images that seem to me to capture something of the essence of Mount Totumas Cloud Forest. Here are two photographs taken during the past week that capture the awe inspiring beauty of these cloud forest mountains. The first is a Rothschildia Silk Moth that appeared at the UV bug light I set up on a cloudy still night. It was a pristine specimen and the following morning I set it on an old oak post and marveled at the velvety texture of its coloration, imaging this insect deep in the cloud forest were I later released it hidden amongst the deep colored textures of the epiphytic laden branches of the forest trees.

From MT – Photos of the Week

The second photo is of an orchid species Oncidium carinifera commonly found at Mount Totumas at all elevation levels and well into La Amistad NP as well.  This specimen was on the trunk of a tree only about 6 feet above the ground at eye level at around 2000m inside La Amistad NP. It had at least 75 blooms and was only one of several large old specimens in the area. To walk in a forest and see such an abundance of flowering orchid specimens each several decades old is truly remarkable. There are few forests left on the planet so untouched that you can find specimens like this so accessible in full splendor that remain uncollected.  Your eye can wander from the micro scene of taking in the full beauty of this orchid and then pan back to the macro scene of the forest with ancient oaks and laurels all covered with epiphytes. One is left grateful and humbled by such scenes.

From MT – Photos of the Week

Foxy Automeris

Thursday, February 11th, 2010

This morning I found an IO moth Automeris sp. I didn’t turn on the UV light last night to attract insects but this moth was attracted to the inside lighting anyway and I discovered it outside on the windowsill of the living room.  Here is a photo.

From Mount Totumas – Automeris sp.

It l looks a lot like a dead leaf.  This family of moths along with several other families of Lepidoptera have eye spots that are a defense against predators. When attacked by a flycatcher for example this moth will expose its underwings and two big eye spots will temporarily create a flight response in the bird as these eyespots resemble the forward facing eyes of a predator. That moment of panic often gives the moth just enough time to escape. This is a classic text book story in entomology. So here is a photo with this same moth with its underwings exposed.

From Mount Totumas – Automeris sp.

I just had to slightly agitate the moth for him to fan open his underwings to expose these predatory eyes. It’s a beautiful insect and the eyespots surely look affective in temporarily scaring a potential avian predator. But what about that large black round spot above its thorax. Is this part of its display?  Let’s look at a photo of this moth turned around 180 degrees.

From Mount Totumas – Automeris sp.

Damn if that black spot doesn’t look like a nose to me.   Together with the eyespots a face appears that looks like a fanciful member of the weasel or raccoon family.  Kind of foxy even, wouldn’t you say? So consulting the field guide of Neotropical Rainforest Mammals here at Mount Totumas we can look for a Central American arboreal predator. For example in the raccoon family found here in these cloud forests is the Cacomistle.  Now let’s give the Cacomistle a fanciful new face using the pattern of the Automeris moth.  Here is the result in a photo of a drawing I made with my limited artistic ability.

From Mount Totumas – Automeris sp

I wonder if that black patch on the thorax of that moth does complete a terrifying face for the Tropical Kingbird who is intent on making a meal of this insect? Or if this is just my own projection on the pattern of this beautiful insect? What do you think?

Birding Update January 2010

Monday, February 8th, 2010
The avifauna at Mount Totumas in January had some striking differences when compared to my last visit in August. The forest was comparably silent, strong winds held up most of the month. Band-tailed Pigeons, numbering in the hundreds during the spring and summer, were absent. Resplendent Quetzals and Three Wattled Bellbirds were essentially also absent although Roberto and Carlos both spotted a couple of lone individuals. Black Guan on the other hand were more likely to be seen on some of the lower forests, probably escaping the strong winds that were raging on the upper slopes of Mount Totumas where we usually found them last summer.

Northern Migrants are present in the forest often joining resident mixed species flocks. Warblers; Black and White, Blackburnian, Mourning, Golden-winged, Black-throated Green, Wilson’s, Tennessee. Northern Orioles, Summer Tanagers, Swainson’s Thrush, Broad-winged Hawks.

The first week of February is ending and I heard the first Three-Wattled Bellbird making a single call at sunset. Resplendent Quetzals are also starting to arrive as we are hearing their squawking calls more frequently. It will be interesting to observe both these species early courtship behavior as March approaches.

The Panama Field Guide mentions two hummingbird species, White-throated Mountain Gem and Purple-throated Mountain Gem as being possibly conspecific but with distinct separate ranges. The Purple-Throated Mountain Gem inhabits lower elevations and supposedly is found in Central and Eastern Chiriqui no further west than Fortuna according to the field Guide. Well this hummingbird is here at Mount Totumas and I observed them twice along the Rio Colorado river drainage at around 1600m. Maybe they have been expanding their range or only seasonally are present but this could be a contact zone for these two species since the White-throated Mountain Gem is common here starting around 2000 meters.

Yesterday was one of those moments that happens occasionally when bird watching where everything seems to come together; the weather, time of day, fruiting trees and where you happen to be standing at a place that puts you right on the front row as a mixed species flock, a riot of diversity comes rolling through and keeps on coming. It reached a point bordering on ridiculous until my head was reeling but it felt so good I just didn’t want it to stop. Mixed species flocks in the neotropics can be very rewarding but very frustrating if your in the dark forest floor craning your neck looking up 120 feet at the underbellies of distant birds. At around 1700m  above the Rio Colorado River walking along the edge of pasture and forest looking down and across at the canopy of trees, some of which were fruiting, I fell into that sweet spot. The weather suddenly shifted as dark clouds rolled in and dropped the temperature which seemed to awaken the forest. Tanagers; Silver-throated, Golden Hooded, Bay-Headed, Summer, Crimson-Backed, Flame-colored, Common Bush. Warblers; Slate-throated, Flame-throated, Black and White, Black-throated Green, Golden-winged, Blackburnian. The list is only a list and doesn’t describe the rush of surprise as what seemed to be another Flame-colored Tanager suddenly emerged from the foliage as a spectacular Red-Headed Barbet. A Northern Oriole, dozens of Mountain Thrush, Spot-crowned Woodcreeper,  Dark Pewee. A pair of Common Tufted Flycatchers, golden brown, sticking to their perches as the rush of species past by.  A Green Violet Ear Hummingbird was calling incessantly the whole time as a pair of Scintillant Hummingbirds were chasing each other in what seemed to be early courtship. A Snowy-bellied Hummingbird popped up green with white belly and disappeared. Topping it all off were large flocks of Sulpher-Winged Parakeets restlessly cruising just above the canopy. Swirling in front of the dark clouds and sweeping down and across the pasture was a large gathering of White-Collared Swifts. It was all inspiring.

Mount Totumas Scallops anyone?

Friday, February 5th, 2010

The 10 small calves we purchased last August have grown and the young bulls have gotten feisty and aggressive with one another to the point they are becoming a nuisance to themselves.  So our options were either castration of female hormone treatment. We chose castration over chemicals and our first four bulls were castrated during my cousin Tom’s visit.

Tom is famous in the family for taking advantage of free animal protein when available. Fresh road kill and the squirrels that plunder his tangerines are fair game and he was not going to let an opportunity of fine cuisine pass him by when he saw the plastic bag of fresh testicles just waiting to be pan fried.

Well they tasted delicious actually. Kind of looked like scallops. In fact we named them  Mount Totumas Scallops. They should be available a couple times a year.

Here is cousin Tom and family preparing and enjoying Mount Totumas Scallops.


The cattle we raise here at Mount Totumas is 100% grass fed on high elevation pasturage in the purest mountain air and free of any hormones. When our beef cattle are ready for market we will make available organic meat to any locals interested in filling up their freezer.We are maintaining a herd of no more than 40 cattle at Mount Totumas Cloud Forest Preserve. The local agricultural consultant who visited us last year said we had the pasturage for up to 100 head but we are keeping the impact to a minimum and have already started letting significant acreage go wild as part of our plans to reforest at least 50% of the 150 acres of pastures on the site. Maintaining a mosaic of small pastures mixed in with second and old growth forest is our long term goal to maximize biodiversity and  for keeping open some of the spectacular views of La Amistad National Park.