The following is a guest blog by writer and photographer Jim O’Donnell, author of Notes for the Aurora Society and Rise and Go, a collection of over 200 photographs and short stories from the world over. He is the owner and head monkey at the travel blog Around the World in Eighty Years.
What kind of person heads out into the cloud forests of Central America to find one of the most beautiful (not to mention rare) birds in the Americas and then forgets to look for it?
As it works out, a bird fanatic… like me.
It is all quite understandable, maybe, when you consider that I was hiking a stunning trail high in the cloud forest of Panama’s mountains surrounded by 1,000 species of birds, 1,500 species of trees, over 200 types of mammals and hundreds more reptiles and amphibians.
Last January, I set out from Boquete, a mountain town near the Costa Rican border, onto the Quetzales Trail. The 6-mile Sendero Los Quetzales connects Boquete to the village of Cerro Punta along the edge of the Barú volcano — at 11,398 feet, the highest point in Panama.
The trail cuts through the cloud forest along the Talamanca mountain range and is widely regarded as the best place to see the rare, iridescent green and red-breasted Resplendent Quetzal.
Everyone warned me how rough the trail was, how easy it was to get lost and how you really shouldn’t go into that forest without a guide. In reality, the only thing tough about the trail is leaving it. Towering overhead are gigantic ancient oaks, magnolias and cedars. The way is clear and easy to find. It’s draped in orchids, prehistoric-looking bromeliads and mosses, mist and ferns and mushrooms and it is hard not to simply fall in love with the path.
Before I get to the birds, let’s take a minute to examine the astonishing biodiversity in this part of the world:
A Paleozoogeographic Event
Panama is THE land bridge connecting North and South America. It is a major ecological transition zone and the dreamland of paleozoologists. When the volcanic isthmus rose up from the sea and the two American continents suddenly found themselves linked some three million years ago, the world witnessed what is known as a “zoogeographic event”. And in this case it was more than a group of penguins escaping the Central Park Zoo and hijacking a ship to Antarctica.
The Great American Interchange
The interchange of species subsequent to the appearance of the land bridge had a dramatic effect on mammal distribution over both continents — but everything from birds to reptiles to amphibians and even freshwater fish jumped into the game. Migrations from North to South were more common and significant. Why? As tropical species moved north they ran into the extreme desert conditions and towering of the area now known as Mexico and the American Southwest (where I live), whereas species moving from North to South had an easier time acclimating. The result for Panama remains an amazing diversity of wildlife from both continents as well as a large number of endemic species.
As is true the world over, Panama’s environment is under threat. Yet thanks in part to the legacy of the Canal, Panama has a bit of a head start on ecosystem protection. Prior to December 1999, the US administration controlled national activities in Panama to a large extent, and development was limited by two massive factors: the need to protect the massive investment in the canal, and because the canal’s lock system was (and remains) dependent on massive quantities of fresh water. An intact rainforest ecosystem busy soaking up, holding and slowly relapsing precipitation was vital for the canal to function.
That legacy has allowed Panama to stand a leg of its economy on nature tourism. While not a panacea, ecotourism generally encourages the protection of natural resources to ensure continued economic prosperity. In the summer of 2011 the Ministry of Economy and Finance signed an agreement with the Global Environment Fund and the Inter-American Development Bank, to finance to the tune of $4 million a conservation project and system of protected areas for ecotourism.
While the pressure on natural resources is huge and development and tourism of any kind brings its challenges, Panama has some opportunities to both prosper economically and protect its resources that many other nations do not.
Back in the mountains, I walked down through the wooded valley, criss-crossing a chilly creek that fell in cool, sweet waterfalls. The trail was relatively level for the first hour or so before it started to climb steeply along a staircase-like trail through stands of bamboo to top out at about 6500 feet – and absolutely stunning views of the mists working their way over the mountains and through the forests.
And the birds! Everywhere!
In the end, I was ready for a cold beer. Or four. Happily worn out and drenched in sweat, I looked at seeds on the underside of a leaf as I neared the end of the trail… I photographed a honeycreeper; then another little flycatcher flew by and I got a shot of him. I heard some howler monkeys in the distance and I realized…
I forgot to stop and look for the most beautiful bird in the Americas!
What option is there but to head back to Panama?