Archive for March, 2010

Echoes of temperate latitudes

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

Monotropa sp.

Sometimes it is not the exotic that inspires but rather the familiar that one finds in exotic places. For those familiar with the more temperate forests and mountain habitats of North America it is not hard to recognize the familiar echo of more northern latitudes in the flora, fauna and fungi of the neo-tropical cloud forest. Here at Mount Totumas Cloud Forest we are at the very southern range of the Talamanca mountains that extend northward for a couple hundred kilometers into Costa Rica, a large part preserved in La Amistad National Park which borders our site. In some of the highest peaks of the Talamancas that exceed 3000m there is clear geological evidence of glaciers during past ice ages. Most likely forests similar to those found today in temperate North America once extended down to the Talamancas here in Central America. The oaks that dominate the forests here for example are descended from more northern forests.

Monotropa uniflora is a unique member of the blueberry family (Ericaceae) that has no chlorophyll and nourishes itself exclusively from rich forest soils. In North America this species is white with a common name of Ghost Plant or Indian Pipe. Emerging in spring and early summer it always evokes something of the mystery of the forest underworld and here at Mount Totumas Cloud Forest it appears in a more gawdy tropical attire, bright red, in oak forests above 2000m

A Common flower of prairie meadows in North America and alpine and subalpine habitats in the Canadian and North American Rocky Mountains is the Indian Paintbrush, genus Castilleja. Several species and hybrids range in color from yellow to pink to orange to red. Here on the pastures at Mount Totumas Cloud Forest one comes across a more diminutive species that looks almost sub-alpine, perhaps some relic of the past when at these same elevations we would have found ourselves above tree line on alpine meadows instead of today’s manmade pastures used to graze cattle.

Did the Castilleja found here migrate down to these elevations from paramo habitat above tree line once humans opened up the forest for grazing?

In eastern temperate forests in North America following heavy rains chanterelle or oyster mushrooms emerge on rotting deciduous hardwood branches and logs on the forest floor. It was not a surprise then after the first rains after several weeks of dry weather here to see what appears to be a member of the oyster mushroom tribe. If it wasn’t for the flies and larvae that arrived first I would have taken them home to fry up with butter. Seeing the fallen oak log draped with these fungi awakened strong memories of the Appalachian mountains in late spring.

Epiphytic orchids far outnumber terrestrial species here. In the deep shade of the understory here at higher elevations one comes across a terrestrial orchid species that resembles those found in more northern mountain forests.

Mountain lions roam these forests as do White-Tailed Deer. Hairy Woodpeckers are here at the most southern extent of their range. And at this time of year winter residents like the Swainson’s or Wood Thrush can be found on understory branches. Summer Tanagers, Northern Orioles, Blackburnian Warblers foraging in trees draped with epiphytes cause our provincial heads to spin. For here they winter in their ancestral homeland from where these families of birds migrated northwards. Tanagers and warblers migrate as far as the boreal forests of Canada to breed in the summer. Their breeding songs ring out in the northern forests in late spring just as the white Monotropa uniflora Ghost Plant is emerging from thawing soils.

Pre Columbian Stone Tool

Monday, March 15th, 2010

We were digging a ditch laying our new filter system and water line to the house when we discovered an ancient stone tool made of some very hard stone. 

It’s quite heavy for its size and the tool still has a sharp edge and it fits perfectly in the human hand with a small bump on the upper surface which improves its grip.  The  design and craftsmanship demonstrate the technology of the peoples who made this tool.

You can imagine separating the skin from muscle of a recent kill,  the peeling away of bark, the splitting of bone and wood.  Holding this tool in your hand you feel a link directly to the past of our ancestors.  I used the tool on a fresh cut piece of bamboo to smoothen the joints to be used as a curtain rod. Kind of a pathetic application compared to those used by  the ancestors who made it. This  simple task of shaving bamboo however does honor their craftsmanship that hundreds of years after being buried it emerges still in perfect shape to perform a task it was designed for. How many of our modern technological tools would  emerge after centuries buried still functional? I guess stainless steel cookware.

Interior of The Mount Totumas Cloud Forest Home

Saturday, March 13th, 2010

Living Room

The house has been a construction site for the past weeks with repairs and renovations. Today I had enough and spent the whole day cleaning up and taking photos to report on the work done to date on the interior of the home. We still have a ways to go but the following photos will give you an idea of the ambience that awaits you when you visit Mount Totumas Cloud Forest.

Master bedroom with double bed, single bed and private bathroom.

Bedroom two with a double bed

Bedroom 3 with a single bed

Kitchen and Dining Room


The journey up here is way off the beaten track. We are 10km from the nearest grid and the 4WD road to arrive at our home on the property is an adventure with two stream crossings and some rough spots. But the reward is an untouched wilderness literally at your doorstep. This has been the primary draw and interest of visitors to date. Our home like the road had a number of rough spots when we first bought the property. We have been working hard with new furnishings and repairs. To be so far from civilization with our own off the grid electricity, hot water and cozy comfortable furnishings in the middle of a wilderness is a rarity.

Yesterday while sitting at the kitchen table in the afternoon I looked out the window as clouds and mist rose up from the valley and on a tree only 40 feet away were two male Resplendent Quetzals and one female. They were heavily into quetzal courtship and the restless birds where constantly flying and playing a game of tag it seemed. One of the males flew straight up vertical and hovered right under a horizontal branch and held the position like a hummingbird for about 4 seconds. I’m no expert on quetzal courtship but these males where strutting their stuff and most likely the female chooses in the end who will be her mate.

We have started on the exterior of the home as well and photos will be forthcoming in the weeks ahead.

A Cornucopia of Bromeliads

Thursday, March 11th, 2010

There is a stunning diversity of bromeliads here at Mount Totumas Cloud Forest. Together with orchids bromeliads are the dominant epiphytes growing on the trunks and branches of trees.  A few species  are terrestrial here as well and there is also a Tillandsia sp. that grows on rock outcroppings.  The higher elevations,  above 1900 meters, has a greater abundance of bromeliads and there are micro-climates in areas that receive directly the bajareque  mist where bromeliads thrive to the point where they cover completely branches crowding out all other epiphytes.  It is precisely in these climatic conditions late in the day when soft sunlight penetrates through the mist that a certain quality of light intensifies the beauty of these plants and the forest.   It is a natural garden overflowing to the point where you find orchids and bromeliads fallen to the forest floor where they lie for months still alive but doomed in the darkness. Sometimes you can’t help but pick them up to give them a second chance and placing them again on a branch of a tree if there is one around with space available! Here is a slide show selection of Bromeliad photos taken at Mount Totumas Cloud Forest and adjacent La Amistad NP

Bird List Mount Totumas Cloud Forest

Sunday, March 7th, 2010

Here is a Link to an updated list of Birds seen at Mount Totumas Cloud Forest and adjacent La Amistad National Park. All the birds noted on this list were seen within a two hour walk of the home.  I anticipate there will be many additions to this list in the months and years ahead as there still hasn’t been extensive field observations  during all seasons of the year. In addition the higher elevations of La Amistad NP near the home have received very few hours of field observation.  Elevation range of the birds listed here is from 1650m to 2600m.  Birds observed on the 4WD road from the main road up to the property boundary are not included.

Golden-Browed Chlorophonia

Friday, March 5th, 2010

A pair of Golden-Browed Chlorophonias were feeding this morning on the fruit of a shrub that is quite common here along forest edges and on pastures that we have allowed nature to reclaim. I collected the fruit to plant these shrubs as part of native landscaping we plan to do around the house.


Maybe one day on some future deck we will build on some early sunny morning with a cup of fresh roasted coffee we can watch these birds close up! These shots were taken from about 30 feet away with a 100m lens and are cropped and greatly enlarged.  The shrubs were growing under a grove of Inga sp. trees. The parallel veins on the leaf of the shrub suggest Melastomataceae?

It would be nice to get a botanist specialized in montane habitats up here at Mount Totumas Cloud Forest for a couple of days.  Free lodging in return for sharing your knowledge.

Photos of the Week # 2

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

This Mexican Hairy Porcupine Coendou mexicanus was about 35 feet up a small tree snoozing along the Rio Colorado at about 1900m. They are nocturnal and when you spot one during the day they don’t do much but look down on you with sleepy eyes as this one did.

A slight rain falling while sitting silently in the shadows. A Green Violet Ear hummingbird feeds on the white tipped red tubular flowers on this extensive vine that was just inside the forest at about 1940m.  No pics of the hummingbird, just this riot of blossoms many of them just a few feet off the ground.

Birding update February 2010

Monday, March 1st, 2010

Scintillant Hummingbirds are nesting. They seem to like the road cuts where erosion has created an overhang  at the base of roots and soil and here they build their tiny nests.  Together with Green Violet Ear they are the commonest Hummingbirds in the area.

At the feeders at our home at this time of year we have three species of Hummingbirds;  Stripe-tailed Hummingbird, Scintillant Hummingbird and White Throated Mountain Gem.

Band-tailed Pigeons have returned in force the last half of the month.  Buff-fronted Quail Doves are seen singly on most days in forests patches when walking the road near the home. The Field Guide indicates that the Chiriqui Quail Dove is more common in this area but we have only spotted one individual during the past year. The Buff-fronted are far more common here.

Three Wattled Bellbirds still remain silent as of March 1st.  Only two sightings were recorded in February. Resplendent Quetzals however are back in force and the very last couple of days of February we are seeing and hearing them in the forest behind the house. Males with their long streaming tails are displaying their courtship flight with squawking calls.  For visitors intent on seeing Resplendent Quetzals and wanting to visit us in the dry season it seems that waiting until the beginning of March would be advised.  There is a wild Avocado tree Persia sp. that is fruiting on our neighbor Mr Vega’s property. I was told that there have been a group or Quetzals there since around 2 weeks so I headed over there with the hopes of getting some photos.  I was well rewarded with very cooperative birds but the weather was windy and rainy.  The wind was curling the long streaming tails of the male Quetzals captured on a few of the photos. It seems the lens on the spotting scope was just foggy enough to capture the rainy ambience of the day. On the same tree during the two hours I hung around I saw Emerald Toucanets and Black Guan.  When a pair of Black Guans arrived they chased the Quetzals away. All three of these species are frugivores.

I met with Mr. Vega our neighbor who has lived on his homesteading site since 1962 and is a wealth of information on the local area.

I sat with him at his simple home and he told me every year at the end of February he sees dozens of Quetzals stream by his property and one evening last year he had 22 individuals roosting in the forest next to his house.  Once the breeding season settles in he only sees about 6-8 individuals on his property.

Mr. Vega said the birds migrate from Cotito at this time of year. That happens to be where the lowest pass on the continental divide is located here in far western Chiriqui and where the main footpaths are located that link Chiriqui with Boca de Torro provinces.  The Monteverde Ecology and Conservation Book I have here at Mount Totumas states that the Resplendent Quetzal in Costa Rica spends November through January  on the Atlantic Forests and comes back over to Monteverde on the pacific cloud forests to breed by the end of January.  From Mr. Vega’s comments it would seem to indicate similar movements here in Western Panama but with the migration from the Atlantic forests happening a bit later.  The higher elevations of the Talamanca mountain range are over 2500m and dominated by oak/bamboo forests. I haven’t ever spotted Quetzals in these habitats  the few times I ventured into these areas.  I’m wondering if the Quetzals follow  lower elevation habitats where their food sources are during their altitudinal migrations between the Pacific and Atlantic forests they inhabit and avoid  the higher elevations on the continental divide dominated by Oak bamboo forests. This might explain why Mr. Vega had 22 individuals  roosting by his home if the birds are funneling through the lower passes.  Taking a census annually at the end of February on the lower passes of Western Chiriqui may very well provide useful data on the population fluctuations of these birds if this is true.  In any case it has been inspiring the past days seeing the movements of these birds through Mount Totumas Cloud Forest as they are returning in ever greater numbers. I hope to find a few nesting sites in the weeks ahead to add some photos here.

MT – Birds