Monday, June 19, 2017

The "Bert Walk"....

On Thursday morning we were invited to join the “Bert Walk”, a tour led by Professor Egbert Leigh, a scientist who has been associated with the island for 48 years.  It was a joy to join him on his morning walk thru the jungle and to hear him talk about what we were seeing and reminisce about things that he had seen thru the years.  We were joined by Mary Rose, an undergraduate student from Marquette University who is here doing research.

As we walked we were privy to Bert Epigrams and every so often he would break out into song.  He led the group with Michael and Mary Rose close behind talking science.  This left me free to walk along and take pretty pictures, and I certainly did that!!!

Bert started by telling us that a large portion of the island was originally a banana grove and the bananas were sold to pay for the research efforts.  My how things have changed!!

We saw the defenses that many plants use to protect themselves.  This tree definitely says “Do.Not.Climb.Me”!!.....

And this leaf even deters predators from approaching…..

Bert told us that the seeds have to land in just the right spot to get enough light to be able to grow and that is why there are not tons of the same species in one area.  They had to spread out to be able to survive.  This meant that tree fall gaps were very important as it opened up a place in the canopy for light to enter and allow other plants to grow.  Mary Rose asked a question about Tree Fall gaps and how the water that the fallen tree had used was partitioned between the other surviving plants.  I am definitely out of my league!!!

He told us that he hated exercise for exercise sake so each day he takes a walk in the forest.  When someone is walking with him he will go further afield but will keep it shorter when he is by himself.   He also said that he loves interactions with the students because it keeps him young.

Sometimes he would point to a single any on a leaf and not only identify the leaf but also the type of ant that was crawling on it.  That was no simple feat as there are 140 species of ants on the ground and 300 in the trees!!

I loved this fern with the spores on the reverse side of the leaf…..

We heard the call of a bird overhead and Mary Rose recognized it as a Toucan.  It was so exciting to see it sitting on a branch far up in one of the trees with the bright colors and large beak.  It was probably my favorite sighting of the day!!

There were an abundance of spiders and gorgeous webs as we walked along.  I particularly liked how this one was back lit by the tree trunk…..

…..and this one with a leaf hanging on the opposite side of his web…..

Mary Rose found this little fellow on a leaf as well……

This tree trunk was home to a nest of stingless bees…..

….and we called this the Caterpillar parking garage…..

We stopped for a rest after about an hour and Bert spent time talking more about the Rainforest area and drinking from his water bottle… old Maker’s Mark bottle.  None of those fancy lightweight polymer bottles for him!!!....

The trail that we walked on was made from cinder blocks and was well maintained and easy to walk on…..

Mary Rose commented that she often walks too fast in forest and misses observing things along the way.  I agreed with her and reveled in how nice it is to walk slowly and have time to observe the world around us.

At one point we entered the original Hubbell Plot.  These were designed by scientist Stephen Hubbell to study forest dynamics.  The plots are 50 hectares in size and every five years there is a census done that measures every plant that is at least 1 centimeter in width at breast height.  This is the second Hubbell plot that we have been in with the first being in India in 2008. 

One interesting fact is that the smallest diameter trees get to be the tallest in the forest.

It was astounding to look up and see nothing but canopy with small amounts of dappled sunlight filtering thru…...

It was also cool to see how the sunlight highlights the spider webs and small bugs flying around.

Some of the vines were huge and tangled into a beautiful mess……

Far into our walk, Bert told us that we were entering genuine old forest, meaning that there has been no culling of the trees and no secondary growth.  This was an imposing thought as we walked past trees that were 500 years old.

We looked down to see ants climbing on our boots and asked Bert what type they would be.  He slowly answered “I don’t know but they could be Army Ants so best to get out of the war zone”.   At this point we did the Army Ant Stomp where you work hard to get them off of your boots before they have time to reach bare skin.  It was amazing how fast they could climb onto your shoes as you were walking down the trail…you didn’t even have to stop.

This tree is related to the Baobab….

...evident by the bulbous shape of the trunk but what I really liked was the base of the trunk with appendages that look like elephant legs…..

Along the path we also saw Howler Monkeys sitting high up in the tree tops.  As I mentioned in the previous post, I was amazed to find that they are not very large at all even though their voice is HUGE!!

We also saw some very large black birds with a Red Dewlap (called Guan).   Apparently these birds are very rare on the mainland because they taste (and look) like turkey.

We laughed that Bert really showed no interest in the monkeys or birds even though we were all three stumbling over each other to get better views of them.   It was obvious that if it wasn't a plant, it wasn't important!!
This nut hull had landed on a horizontal tree trunk and had then been covered with a fine fungus that looked very cool when backlit…..

I loved the color and shape of these mushrooms…..

As usual, I am enamored with the shapes found in this wonderful creation.  Here are a few of my favorites…….

As we exited the Rainforest area, this little guy seemed to be wishing us a fond farewell…

Having never been in a Tropical Rainforest before, this was my  all-time favorite part of this trip. It is an experience that I will never forget!!!

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Discovering the Joys of Barro Colorado Island....

Now comes my favorite part of the trip so far but before we start, we need to have a history/geography lesson….not my best subjects so bear with me!!!

In the 1800’s, people had looked for a fast way to get between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans without having to travel around the point of South America.   The French first proposed a canal thru Panama but the attempt went bankrupt with the onset of Malaria, Yellow Fever and other tropical diseases. 

The US took over the effort, ensuring Panamanian support by helping Panama (then a Colombian Provence) to become independent from Colombia.  In 1904, the US started the project, building a 48 mile waterway to connect the two oceans.

An artificial lake (Lake Gatun) was built to provide water for the canal operations of raising and lowering the water levels.   The Chagres River was dammed and as its waters rose to form Gatun Lake , a small mountain of 476 ft. was isolated from the mainland and formed Barro Colorado Island.

Scientists recognized the importance of this island not only as a biological reserve but also as a scientific research station.  In 1946, the responsibility of maintaining the facility was given to the Smithsonian Institution as a part of their mission, “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.”

This exciting Island was our next destination!!!

We reached the 1500 hectare (3700 acre) island by taking a 35 minute boat ride from Gamboa.  It was fun to think that we were actually traveling in the Panama Canal, although not the way that most people travel thru it…..

We had no idea what to expect in the way of accommodation and were pleasantly surprised when we were given keys to a small suite with magnificent views into the forest….

The meals are all served in a common dining room which was filled with Professors, Post-doctoral fellows, PhD candidates, Undergrads, Groundskeepers and Guards!!  It was exciting to listen to each of the researchers talk about the projects that they are working on.  One young woman from Germany was studying Bat behaviors and had set up cameras to record them as they flew in and out of their dens so she could record the types of food that they were carrying with them.

Another researcher was looking at tree vs. fern data, seeking to determine which types of trees were able to resist the advance of ferns and vines that would potentially kill the trees.

And yet another group was looking at the effect of lightning strikes on trees and how long it took them to die after the strike.

After dinner we were invited to join some of the students on the balcony for a beer chat.  We laughed that the beer was dispensed from a remodeled Pepsi machine…..

....and we have NO explanation for why they have Old Milwaukee!!
We were told the best place to see the sunrise and they were right.....

The island has many species of animals, including Monkeys, Sloths and Ocelots but the most prevalent are the Agouti's  who have full run of the island.....

I would describe them as a mixture of rabbit, squirrel and rat!!

On Thursday morning we were taken on the “Bert Hike” which I will describe in the next post.  In the afternoon, we spent time relaxing in our room and catching up on things since we had decent internet.  However, as I sat staring at my computer I managed to look up once and saw two Capuchin (White Face) monkeys playing in the trees outside of our window.  We raced for cameras and enjoyed watching them for about 15 minutes…..

We also loved hearing the Howler monkeys outside our door and I made this video when one monkey continued to howl……

The interesting thing about these monkeys is that they are quite small.  I always assumed that such a big sound came from a big animal!!

When the 5:30 boat arrived from the mainland we were pleased to see an old friend aboard.  Wes Brown, who was one of Michael’s colleagues many years ago, had come with his wife to hear Michael’s talk.  We shared a bottle of wine with them before dinner and had a few minutes together after the talk.   It was great to catch up with Wes again…..

I had commented that I seldom attended Michael’s talks and on the few occasions I did, I had been known to read newspapers or books instead of taking notes.  So, one of the young women with a “Arnold-esque” sense of humor presented me with this paper to keep me busy during the talk…..

After the talk we were invited to have drinks with Egbert Leigh, an eccentric 76 year old gentleman who calls himself the “Shepherd of Barro Colorado Island”.  His office was stacked high with books and scientific papers and we had a wonderful time talking with him about science and life in general.  More about him in the next post.

On Friday morning we left the island just after breakfast, with Michael still answering student’s questions up until the very last moment.  They were very hungry for scientific interactions and Michael was happy to oblige!!

Friday, June 16, 2017

Finishing up in Panama City.....

When last I left you, Michael had just finished his first talk at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Center.  After a quick meet and greet accompanied by wonderful fried “taquito-esque” appetizers and cold, cold beer, Allen suggested that we walk the 15 minutes (more like 30) to a Peruvian restaurant that he loved.

The walk thru Panama City was enjoyable as we watched the hustle and bustle of a typical big city just after working time is over.  We walked thru a pedestrian mall with all of the stores playing loud Latin music trying to entice shoppers into their store.

The architecture was typical for a Latin American country, complete with bright colors and intricate wrought iron…..

As we passed this church I had to snap a few photos…..

I wish that we had been able to stop for a few minutes to have a look inside!!

The first question as we sat at our table was what we wanted to drink.  Michael and Allen chose a Sangria but I had to have the classic Panamanian drink….the Pisco Sour…..

It is made from Peruvian Pisco (a type of brandy), lime or lemon juice, simple syrup, an egg white and a few drops of bitters.  It is whipped until frothy and served over ice.  It was so refreshing.

Now it was time to order dinner.   One of the other things that Panama is famous for is their Ceviche….fish that has been marinated in lime juice and served raw.  I was skeptical but found it to be really good.   We also ordered grilled Octopus for one of the appetizers…..

….and it ended up being my favorite of the evening. 

For the main course, I had a Sea Bass with a tomato sauce and Michael had Garlic Prawns…..

My meal was nice but his was delicious!!!

Of course we had to order dessert and we both chose the sweet, cold Flan…..

As you can see, all of the plates had gorgeous presentation!!!

I fell in love with the tiled floor and especially like the tile just above the blank one.....

It has so much depth to it!!!
We walked back out of the city, with Allen taking us thru some of the un-gentrified areas.  The best scene of the evening was a house with it’s doors wide open and lots of people sitting outside.  They had all gathered to watch the Panama vs Honduras Soccer match.  It was quite a spectacle.

Allen took a side trip into a bar just so we could see the city from the balcony……

It was worth the diversion!!

But the best/worst spectacle of the evening was this Mola Swimsuit……

You may disagree, but I thought that it was hideous!!!

We were passed by one taxi that had his windows down and rap music blaring….we did NOT ride with him!!

On Wednesday morning we headed to another of the STRI institutes located on Naos Island.   To get there, you drive out on a Causeway that was built to help protect the Canal from silt buildup.  It was interesting to be on this narrow piece of land with Panama Bay on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other.

As Michael started his talk, I went for a walk along the Causeway, stopping at a small “Super Mercado” (grocery store) to buy a bottle of water and a snack.   There were tables set up just outside of the store and I joined two other people watching a Spanish dubbed version of Little House on the Prairie!!

As I walked back to the Institute, I enjoyed seeing the Panama City Skyline in the daylight……

…..and watching a group of Pelicans enjoying the sun.  There was one who was either a bad fisherman or he REALLY loved to dive into the water, and I watched as he dove over and over again.  

The drive to Allen's home follows along the canal and I was once again amazed by the sheer size of the container ships, especially compared to the size of the tug boats that guide them!!!

We arrived back at the house and packed up for the next leg of our adventure….more to come!!

Thursday, June 15, 2017

First views of Panama City....

I finally have internet access so can get this first post out.....

Our flight from Atlanta was delayed about 45 minutes but was uneventful after that.   I watched the movie “Hidden Figures” and absolutely loved it.   It will definitely be added to our movie library!!

In was exciting to step off of the plane and into a new country for me!!  As we walked thru the airport we were excited to find an ATM and quickly requested our cash but it came out in US Dollars!!   I am sure that the amazed look on our faces was clear to everyone walking past.  However, we were later assured that Panama uses US dollars as it’s main currency although it is given a different name…..the Balboa, named after the famous explorer.

We were met by Michael’s host, Allen, and took a midnight drive thru Panama City and to the small township of Gamboa which is where Allen lives.  Gamboa is the last true “Canal Town” in Panama.   It was basically half way between the Atlantic and Pacific and was originally the home of the dredging and maintenance division.

As we were driving Allen pointed out that we were at center of the Continental Divide….kind of cool!!

We awoke to a cacophony of bird calls including one that sounded much like a Bob-White Quail from West Texas!!  As I dried my hair, looking dreamily out the window,  I saw two Agouti, a small blocky-nosed mammal that wanders the area freely.  I look forward to seeing more at a closer range. 

I enjoyed exploring the area around Allen’s home, especially these small wasps….

After an alfresco breakfast,….. 

…..where we could hear the whine of the ship engines as they navigated the canal, we hopped in the car and were given a whirl-wind tour of Gamboa.  Most of the houses are original from the Canal building days and are built in treehouse style with a central base with a wrap-around porch, and the living area upstairs.  Even the new houses that are being built here are in the same style….

Allen had said that he would show us some places that we could explore while he was out for a couple of hours and for a while I tried to keep up with the turns and street names.  Finally I realized that he was just meandering thru the streets so I gave up on the map.  Instead I asked for his physical address so that we could use Google Maps if we got hopelessly lost!!  Toward the end of our drive Allen described Gamboa as an outer loop and an inner labyrinth and I do believe it!!

We stopped at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort to have a look at Lago Gatun which is a manmade lake that provides the water for the Canal….. 

A short drive in the other direction put us overlooking the canal itself…..

I especially like the old lighthouse, covered in nests for bees and birds….

We saw a group of tourists armed with snake hooks and cameras, apparently looking for Iguanas and Fer-de-lance snakes.   I preferred chasing this Iguana…..

Michael needed some time to work on his talk and just to rest up a bit (his energy levels are still a bit low) so we just relaxed in the house instead of going out walking.

Michael is in Panama to give three talks to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) located in Panama.   After lunch we headed out to one of the mainland campuses....the Tupper campus for him to give his first talk. 

  ....more later.....

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