VIEW FROM THE CLOUDS: PANAMA
Birds of a Feather, Sort Of
Sunday, February 18, 2007
"King vulture at 1 o'clock!" Winnie yelled down the steep stairs from the lodge's observation deck. "King vulture at 1 o'clock!"
From throughout the rest of the building, a half-dozen or so other guests materialized, interrupting their siestas. One man wore only shorts, no shirt or shoes. Everyone aimed binoculars high into the sky.
Where? There! Up, up -- against the big cloud -- big, the biggest, the highest -- up there!
Someone pulled out a guidebook to Central American birds and read a description of the huge, white-bodied scavenger that soared far above the Panamanian forest. It's a bird you would never see in North America and only rarely even here, where the isthmus funnels in a remarkable avian variety. "Unmistakable," the book says.
"I like unmistakable," another woman said, as Winnie did a little victory dance.
I like unmistakable, too. I'm decent at identifying robins, particularly the ones with the really red breasts, and I can almost always spot a cardinal, even from all the way across the back yard. But the elegant trogon eluded me in southern Arizona, and I've never seen a quetzal in Costa Rica. In the Galapagos, all of Darwin's finches looked pretty much the same to me.
Nonetheless, there I was, binoculars in hand, on the observation deck of Canopy Tower, an old U.S. radar installation in the former Panama Canal Zone. This place is legendary among serious bird-watchers. I'm definitely not one of those, but I'm married to a man who has owned a Peterson field guide since he was 6 years old.
After the United States transferred the radar tower and surrounding land to Panama as part of the handover of the canal, local businessman and bird-watcher Raul Arias leased it and converted it into an eco-lodge. It's one of the ways Panama is reaching for some of the nature travel business that has been such a gold mine for neighboring Costa Rica.
A Special Breed of Tourists
The five-story metal tower sits on a hilltop, rising well above the tree canopy. It's easily visible from the canal, where guides describe it as a big yellow golf ball sitting on a blue-green tee.
Even though the tower is just 40 minutes from downtown Panama City, it is surrounded by thick forest that shelters hundreds of kinds of birds. That draws eco-tourists with optics, people like those staring at the sky that afternoon. People with spotting scopes and bird books. People with great memories for tiny details and the ability to distinguish cinnamon from rufous at 30 yards.
In other words, birders.