Saturday, 28 July 2012

Historic Occasion, Crossing the Canal

Friday July 27
Breakfast 5 am !. Off at 5.30. Our guide Alex, David, Pam and I. We seemed to drive for ages before reaching the Panama Canal, which was exciting. We weren't held up long before crossing the low bridge, able to view the enormous ship in the Miraflores lock, waiting for the cascading water to fill it. I tried some photos through the  tinted bus window.

After a longish drive we parked roadside opposite a large cecropia tree which proved to be very productive. The Achiote Road is the site of Panama's largest 24 hour Christmas bird count, the 340 species seen  by the Panama Audubon Society. We saw over a 100 species in the day.

Collared Aracari
Many birds dropped in for a feed on the new shoots, including Purple-throated Fruitcrow, a beautiful lifer for us. Unfortunately, it didn't stay long nor was I able to see it well enough. I turned to Alexis and said 'Now I'd like to see it front on, through your scope, with the sun on it'. Five minutes later, my wish came true. Its plum purple iridescent throat patch glowed brightly. Fruitcrows are members of the Cotinga family. I was about to digiscope it flew away.
Snacks appeared from the boot of the minibus. Little cheese and ham rolls, cake, drinks and a jar of 'Tower special' - a mixture of salted peanuts, smartie type beans (MandMs I later discovered) and, dried fruit. Surprisingly tasty.
Who was daft here? An adult Red-crowned Woodpecker appeared at one hole with food, a youngster poked its head out of another hole below its parent. An impasse which went on for some time. 

I love Puffbirds, they sit still ! This is a Black-breasted.
The next stop - in the middle of nowhere - was a  turnoff onto a rough track which led past some houses, farming fields and scattered trees which was, again, very productive indeed.
We lunched near a Ranger Station rest room on the way to the old Spanish fortress of San Lorenzo, a World Heritage site. Table and stools were set up and we feasted on Chicken Sandwich, salad, potato salad, and fruit followed by cake. They cater very well at the Tower - and away from it.
A small troup of Howler Monkeys a short distance up the road, sprawled along branches in the shade were great to see but hopeless for photography. I bet David managed though. He uses a 500mm lens and is absolutely brilliant with it, slick, fuss-free, unobtrusive and very able.
It was sad to pass through a large number of  houses  abandoned by US forces when they moved out, en route to the fort. They still looked substantial, why weren't they passed on to locals? What a waste.
The fort itself looked like a ruined castle, sat on top of a knoll looking down onto the confluence of the Chagres river and the Atlantic. 

Pam's photo
The sought Hummingbird did not appear, just a few Brown Pelicans and Neotropic Cormorants. The Yellow-headed Caracara flew before I could photograph it.
It was a 30 mins wait before we could cross canal on the way back. Nor could we see what was happening. A horrendous traffic build-up from several directions and the crossing is single track. 
It was a slow drive to the train station at Colon for our  5 p.m. departure. Part of the trip itinerary is a train journey back to Panama City on the Panama Canal Railroad, the first transcontinental railway in the Western Hemisphere  when it was opened in 1855. Great engine and very high roofed carriages on what is a designated 'Tourist Train'. 
We had to wait to be directed to our seats by an officious young woman. We reckoned the power had gone to her head, we all got the giggles as she took us through two empty carriages before she pointed at a table for four towards the back of the third. Why? Everywhere else remained empty..........
Another control freak took orders for drinks. She gazed about as we ordered then took off before we'd finished. She only brought the three beers and not my water. She had to go back for that, walking off rather than liistening to Pam ask for 2 bags of potato chips. She brought one and had to go back again for the second. Then, she hadn't got any change and, short of frisking Pam to make sure she didn't have any small change about her person, did all she could to resist taking the notes proffered. All very entertaining.
Scenically, the one hour, 47 mile, ride was attractive, passing by lakes and the canal. Dave and Alexis were facing forward and managed a glimpse of Snail Kite, we didn't.
TRAFFIC. Absolutely horrendous in Panama City at this time of night, we didn't get back to the Tower until 7.30.
The Texan group has always eaten all the nibbles, would there be any dinner left? Just about.

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