Day 2: Our Walk on the Island of Barro Colorado

Trail Signs on Barro Colorado IslandDay 2 of our Panama sojourn begins at the field station of Barro Colorado Island, established in 1923 as a reserve for conservation and study. The three sketchbooks I carry are an 81/2 x 11 for pencil, a hardbound one for pen and ink, and a small Moleskine for quick field notes. They are stowed in the field bag along with an assortment of pencils, erasers, sharpeners, rapidograph pens and ziplock bags in case it rains, which it probably will. A small folding umbrella, a water bottle and a map of the island trails come in handy, and although sitting cross-legged on a plastic garbage bag on the forest floor always worked well enough, lately I’m given to the comfort of a three-legged folding camp stool. Binoculars hang around our necks, and we’ll wear our pants cuffs tucked into the tops of our boots to ward off chiggers and evil spirits.

Barro Colorado Island map Trail map of BCI. Click on the image to enlarge it.

Remember, we’re here to get warm and escape the crummy weather at home. So you’ll notice right away how good your skin feels right now–think of the tropical rainforest as a big walk-around moisturizer. Your dry, cracked, winter-chapped skin will fluff right out and feel fabulous. If your hair’s like mine, it’ll curl up like Harpo Marx’s favorite wig.

But the rainforest isn’t all about glamour. We’re also here to get dirty, sweaty, and chigger-bit.

View of Panama Canal from BCI

We can start in the lab clearing, just up the hill from the boat dock. From here we can take any number of walks into the forest. First, though, let’s look at what’s going on right around us.

Blue Chested Hummingbird

Blue Chested Hummingbird, lab clearing, Barro Colorado Island.

The lab clearing is a good place to see species that use open areas and edges, like Social flycatchers and Red-legged honeycreepers and Blue-gray Tanagers. There are heliconias planted around the buildings and pathways that are being visited by hummingbirds, among them White-necked Jacobins, Crowned Woodnymphs and Hermits.

From here we can look out on the Canal and see what’s flying over it or foraging at the edge of it, like maybe a Snail kite or a Limpkin. Listen to the sounds of BCI: cicadas keep up a constant din which you’ll only notice when it stops. Up the hill a trio of Chestnut-mandibled toucans are squeaking in the canopy, a Black-throated Trogon is making “sick puppy” calls somewhere in the mid-storeys, and the Howler monkey troupe over on Fairchild Point is roaring at the Howler troupe over at Lutz Ravine.

howler monkeys

Howler Monkeys only look and sound ferocious. They are pleasantly mild-mannered and have swooningly beautiful eyes.

We’ll head up the hill and check out the bird action around the fruiting Virola (wild nutmeg) tree along with some fruiting Cecropias at the edge of the upper lab clearing.

Violaceous Trogons in Virola

Violaceous Trogons in Fruiting Virola, from sketches drawn from life on BCI. Pastel and graphite on paper, 11″x14″

You can sit for hours and watch the Motmots, Trogons, Aracaris and Boat-billed flycatchers, all the big fancy birds, go at it. It’s mesmerizing. In My Tropical Air Castle (1929), probably the best book ever written about Barro Colorado Island, Frank Chapman wonderfully describes the allure of the tropics:

One forms a lasting and intimate friendship with nature in the north, but falls hopelessly in love with her in the south. But even while she lures she repels and perhaps herein lies her endless fascination. One is never quite sure of her. Her most winsome aspect may be deceptive, or it may be a dream of rare delight.

3 thoughts on “Day 2: Our Walk on the Island of Barro Colorado

  1. pie.rat says:

    What a beautiful part of the world! I’m enjoying my vacation by proxy, so it must be wonderful to see those sights in person!

    Gorgeous art, as always. 🙂

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