Collared Aracari [Pteroglossus torquatus]; Santa Fe, Panama

Collared Aracari [Pteroglossus torquatus]; Santa Fe, Panama

Nature and wildlife photographers Larry Kimball and Barbara Magnuson are a married couple based in Colorado. In this article they share about their trips to Panama, as well as many photos from their trip. All of the text below was written by Larry, and the photos below are from both Barbara and Larry. Visit their website to learn more about their work. You may also be interested in their past features on Costa Rica and Ecuador.

Walking along this trail one thing becomes clear, we’ve been away from the tropics for way too long. Heliconias, red and yellow glow in a sea of green. Sweat runs in rivulets down my face, heat and humidity, the necessary ingredients for this untamed mass of life, hard to handle after years spent in Colorado. Howler Monkeys roar and howl from mid‑level in the trees overhead, a misty rain drifts through the canopy, makes my shirt even wetter but doesn’t cool. Surrounded by an almost unbelievable diversity of life, plant, animal and insect make a dreamscape for a photographer.

After a 10 year absence from the new world tropics we decided on a trip to Panama to renew a love affair that started in Costa Rica (that affair ended up as a book on the common plants of CR) in the early ’90s and to see if living here full‑time was possible; but also to be surrounded by the incredible medley of life, the colors, the sounds, the smells that mark the neotropics as a place of extraordinary biodiversity. This account is a blend of 2 trips, one in 2014 and the last in 2017. Both trips were during the rainy season (green season) which is not constant or even consistent. Some days have no rain at all and generally mornings are clear with the breath of the rain forest, like a gossamer film, sliding through and over the jungle. Occasionally it will rain all day. All bets were off in 2017 when a tropical storm churned up the Caribbean coast of western Panama up to Nicaragua causing massive downpours, described as “biblical” by some. Those rains developed on the Pacific side of these countries, rains that seemed they couldn’t come down harder, then did and at that point increased yet again. Rivers churned brown with mud, tree trunks sluiced toward the ocean.

Rufous Motmot [Baryphthengus martii]; Soberania National Park, Panama

Rufous Motmot [Baryphthengus martii]; Soberania National Park, Panama

We come fully armed with the photography equipment necessary for working in the rainforest, digital cameras that allow speeds that were unthinkable in the age of film and a range of lenses. Full frame (2 Nikon D800s) and DX (1 Nikon D500) cameras and an assortment of lenses from a Nikon 500mm f4, a Nikon 200mm macro, assorted zooms from a Nikon 200‑500, to a 16‑28 Tamron as well as flashes and mounts for off‑camera flash work. Not to mention a laptop and a separate hard drive.

After surviving the drive out of Panama City, something you really don’t want to do, surviving is good, the driving is not. A little clarification, first trip we picked up our rental car in downtown and found a traffic system that seemed devoid of rules and was not an experience I would want to have again. Our second trip we stayed in Casco Viejo (Old Town) an area on the edge of Panama City and of  picturesque old crumbling buildings, some in various stages of renovation, very old churches, good restaurants and very nice places to stay. The view across the Bay of Panama at night from Casco is not to be missed, find a restaurant with a roof top dining area . A taxi to our car rental on the outskirts of the city solved the insane traffic problem.

Green Honeycreeper [Chlorophanes spiza] male; Gamboa, Panama

Green Honeycreeper [Chlorophanes spiza] male; Gamboa, Panama

We spent several days with the town of Gamboa as our base, an interesting little town along the Panama Canal and Soberania National Park (54,620 acres). Gamboa is one of the settlements that housed the workers during the building of the canal and has a great unique and historical feel.

Mantled Howler Monkey [Allouata palliata] adult browsing canopy; Soberania National Park, Panama

Mantled Howler Monkey [Allouata palliata] adult browsing canopy; Soberania National Park, Panama

The park is home to an amazing variety of wildlife and is the home of the Pipeline Road (Camino del Oleoducto) one of the top birding sites on the planet.

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White-necked Jacobin [Florisuga mellivora] male; Soberania National Park, Panama

White-necked Jacobin [Florisuga mellivora] male; Soberania National Park, Panama

Soberania has some 525 species of birds, 105 species of mammals, 55 of amphibians, and 79 of reptiles; enough diversity to keep a lover of nature busy for a long time. Of course, the entire country has an abundance of species, some 972 species of birds, over 200 reptile and mammal species, nearly 200 amphibian species, and more than 10,00 of plants. Barro Colorado Island has 480 species of trees on its 15 square kilometers of land. Like macro subjects? There are estimates of 10,000 species of beetles and 16,000 of butterflies.

Central American Agouti [Dasyprocta punctata] foraging; Gamboa, Panama

Central American Agouti [Dasyprocta punctata] foraging; Gamboa, Panama

With all of this life comes the realization that a great deal of it is under one threat or another with 112 species on the Red List of threatened species and many populations accelerating toward oblivion. Climate change and habitat destruction being the major drivers of species decline or extinction. Panama has about 29% of its area protected as forest reserves, wildlife refuges and national parks but many of these are “paper parks” with no infrastructure and no real ability to protect them from illegal logging, slash and burn agriculture and poaching. We hope that as the park idea matures these paper parks will get the protection they deserve just as some of the parks in Costa Rica went through much the same process.

Our first trip took us to some of the towns whose elevation promised a little cooler experience. El Valle de Anton, sitting in the crater of an extinct volcano was our first highland stop. It is home of the almost mythical Golden Frog housed now at the Amphibian Conservation Center (the only place you will see them in Panama) along with other critically endangered amphibian species. The hope is with captive breeding programs that these species will eventually be re‑introduced to the wild.

Panamanian Golden Frog [Atelopus zeteki], critically endangered frog; , reproductive facility; El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center, El Valle, Panama

Panamanian Golden Frog [Atelopus zeteki], critically endangered frog; , reproductive facility; El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center, El Valle, Panama

Santa Fe de Veraguas was our next stop, a beautiful area near the national park of the same name (one of those “paper parks”) with a new paved road heading toward the Caribbean. This will take you over the continental divide into the Ngobe‑Bugle indigenous domain.

Sunrise over misty mountain rainforests view from Casa Mariposa; Santa Fe, Panama

Sunrise over misty mountain rainforests view from Casa Mariposa; Santa Fe, Panama

Sadly this improved road will change the character of the area but will hopefully prompt the government to a better job of protecting the park. The road is now paved (2017) as far as the village of El Guabal. It’s “improved” for some distance north, not a good bet if it has been raining much, a 4 wheel drive will not survive the mud.

Flag-footed Bug [Anisocelis flavolineata] on Passionfruit vine; Casa Mariposa, Santa Fe, Panama

Flag-footed Bug [Anisocelis flavolineata] on Passionfruit vine; Casa Mariposa, Santa Fe, Panama

We then headed to the highlands around Parque National Volcan Baru (35,000 acres) with Boquete (“gringolandia”) the most well‑known town in the area in a very beautiful valley and quite popular with expats. Then further west to Volcan and Cerro Punta, the farm center of Panama and bordered by both Volcan Baru National Park and La Amistad International Park (511,000 acres, shared with Costa Rica).

Green Violet-ear Hummingbird [Colibri thalassinus] nectaring; Bajo Grande, Cerro Punta, Panama

Green Violet-ear Hummingbird [Colibri thalassinus] nectaring; Bajo Grande, Cerro Punta, Panama

There is here is a lot of fascinating country to tempt the photographer. 2017 found us back in Nueva Suiza (between Volcan and Cerro Punta) with tropical storm rains interrupting our hiking plans for several days and sending lane closing mud and debris slides over parts of the Inter‑American Highway.  Even with the rain the hummingbirds were still busily visiting feeders and flowers. All of the rain changed our plans but didn’t dim the beauty of the area.

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird [Amazillia tzacatl]; Nueva Suiza, Panama

Rufous-tailed Hummingbird [Amazillia tzacatl]; Nueva Suiza, Panama

Panama has a number of indigenous groups living on traditional lands called Comarcas (semi‑autonomous areas), the Ngobe‑Bugle, Embera‑Wounaan and their extraordinary woven baskets, the Kuna (all have their own Comarcas) as well as the Naso and Bribri. Sadly, many of these people live in poverty while trying to live in a more or less traditional way of subsistence farming, fishing and hunting. Some see increased tourism, especially eco‑tourism as a way to improve their lives.

We spent a few evenings after dark chasing frog calls, always hopeful of seeing the singer and getting a photo (finding an ID comes later) while being distracted by constellations of stars in the trees and across the grass, watching a firefly flash from one perch to another releasing its cold fire into the warm night.

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No sleeping in with parrots flying in pairs from roost to feeding areas, calling constantly, Orange‑chinned Parakeets chatter and screech back and forth from a Cecropia tree full of fruit. Howlers start up fairly early, prompting you out to see what wonders wait, always something new and intriguing.

Deforested, with the only desert (man-made) in Panama, the Azuero Peninsula doesn’t seem like a photographers destination but there is more here than might be apparent by that description. The Azuero is the traditional heart of Panama with a festival somewhere almost every day of the year. While it is true that most of the area is farm or grazing land there are more wooded areas than “deforested” would indicate.  We stayed near Playa Venao, south of the colorful town of Pedasi on a ranch that has been reforesting with native trees (over 30,000 in 10 years) at an astonishing rate.  Proof that cattle can be raised and still have forest with plentiful birdlife and other critters. Many of the native species have been returning.

Sunset on Pacific coast from Playa Venao, Panama

Sunset on Pacific coast from Playa Venao, Panama

Surfers have been visiting the coast of the Azuero for years and there was little tourist infrastructure but that is changing. It is still a fairly quiet region with small fishing villages along the sublime coast.  Howlers in the trees, Macaws cruising the coast between roost and feeding areas, Yellow‑headed Carcaras on roadside fence posts, sunset over the wave pummeled shore, not a bad place to visit.

If you’d like to learn more about Larry and Barbara, or view more of their photos, please visit www.pronghornwildlifephotography.com.

 

All photos in this post are © Larry Kimball & Barbara Magnuson, used with permission.

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