Walking along this trail one thing becomes clear, we’ve been away from the tropics for way too long. Heliconias, red and yellow glow in a sea of green. Sweat runs in rivulets down my face, heat and humidity, the necessary ingredients for this untamed mass of life, hard to handle after years spent in Colorado. Howler Monkeys roar and howl from mid-level in the trees overhead, a misty rain drifts through the canopy, makes my shirt even wetter but doesn’t cool. Surrounded by an almost unbelievable diversity of life, plant, animal and insect make a dreamscape for a photographer.
After a 10 year absence from the new world tropics we decided on a trip to Panama to renew a love affair that started in Costa Rica (that affair ended up as a book on the common plants of CR) in the early ’90s and to see if living here full-time was imaginable. But also to be surrounded by the incredible medley of life, the colors, the sounds, the smells that mark the neotropics as a place that can immerse us in encounters that we cannot experience anyplace else.
We come fully armed with the photography equipment necessary for working in the rainforest, digital cameras that allow speeds that were unthinkable in the age of film and a range of lenses. Our newest piece of gear is a Nikon D800, the much heralded 36.3 megapixel full frame (a 200mm lens is a 200mm lens) camera that has made landscape photographers swoon. It was never billed as a wildlife shooters camera but, with an excellent high ISO sensor (I shoot in low light at 2,000 ISO as well as using the high ISO settings for Hummingbird photography with little or no noise) and the ability to switch to DX mode (a 200mm lens is the equivalent of a 300mm lens) at a lower megapixel count (15.4) there is no reason the D800 can’t be used for all the things a nature photographer wants to work on. This is not a “fast” camera, 4-5 frames a second, so it isn’t a sports camera, but having never been a “spray and pray” photographer it is plenty fast for me. So we get to put a new camera through its paces in a country new to us.After surviving the drive out of Panama City, something you really don’t want to do, surviving is good, the driving is not, we spent several days with the town of Gamboa as our base, an interesting little town along the Panama Canal and Soberania National Park (54,620 acres). Gamboa is one of the settlements that housed the workers during the building of the canal and has a great unique and historical feel. The park is home to an amazing variety of wildlife and is the home of the Pipeline Road (Camino del Oleoducto) one of the top birding sites on the planet. Soberania has some 525 species of birds, 105 species of mammals, 55 of amphibians, and 79 of reptiles; enough diversity to keep a lover of nature busy for a long time. Of course, the entire country has an abundance of species, some 972 species of birds, over 200 reptile and mammal species, nearly 200 amphibian species, and more than 10,00 of plants. Barro Colorado Island has 480 species of trees on its 15 square kilometers of land. Like macro subjects? There are estimates of 10,000 species of beetles and 16,000 of butterflies. With all of this life comes the realization that a great deal of it is under one threat or another with 112 species on the Red List of threatened species and many populations accelerating toward oblivion. Climate change and habitat destruction being the major drivers of species decline or extinction. Panama has about 29% of its area protected as forest reserves, wildlife refuges and national parks but many of these are “paper parks” with no infrastructure and no real ability to protect them from illegal logging, slash and burn agriculture and poaching. We hope that as the park idea matures these paper parks will get the protection they deserve just as some of the parks in Costa Rica went through much the same process.
Rain hammers down and the wind whips it back under the roof overhang we hoped would shelter us while thunder rumbles almost continuously, at first this is really refreshing but as the storm persists and water cascades off of roofs like waterfalls, the temperature drops and there is a distinct chill in the air. A gain of elevation translates into cooler temps, add rain and wind and it does not feel tropical at all. The rainy season (“green season”) is not constant or even consistent, some days have no rain at all and generally mornings are clear with the breath of the rain forest, like a gossamer film, sliding through and over the jungle.
This trip took us to some of the towns whose elevation promised a little cooler experience. El Valle de Anton, sitting in the crater of an extinct volcano is home of the almost mythical Golden Frog housed now at the Amphibian Conservation Center (the only place you will see them in Panama) along with other critically endangered amphibian species, was our first highland stop. The hope is with captive breeding programs that these species will eventually be re-introduced to the wild.Santa Fe de Veraguas, a beautiful area near the national park of the same name (one of those “paper Parks”) with a new paved road heading toward the Caribbean, over the continental divide into the Ngobe-Bugle indigenous domain which will change the character of this area but will hopefully prompt the government to begin to protect the park. The highlands around Parque National Volcan Baru (35,00 acres) with Boquete (“gringolandia”) the most well-known town in the area and very popular with expats, west to Volcan and Cerro Punta, the farm center of Panama and bordered by both Volcan Baru National Park and La Amistad International Park (511,000 acres, shared with Costa Rica) have a lot of fascinating country to tempt the photographer.
Panama has a number of indigenous groups living on traditional lands called Comarcas (semi-autonomous areas), the Ngobe-Bugle, Embera-Wounaan, Kuna, Naso working to gain Comarca status and a small population of Bri Bri. As is often the case today many of these people live in poverty while trying to live in a more or less traditional way subsistence farming, fishing and hunting. Some see increased tourism, especially eco-tourism as a way to improve their lives.
We spent a few evenings after dark chasing frog calls, always hopeful of seeing the singer and getting a photo (finding an ID comes later) while being distracted by constellations of stars in the trees and across the grass, watching a firefly flash from one perch to another releasing its cold fire into the warm night. The D800 has a built-in flash that some think is an “amateur” addition, I would disagree. I use off-camera flash for many things (fill light for wildlife and low light macros) but for ease of use when photographing insects and frogs this built-in flash does a great job.No sleeping in with parrots flying in pairs from roost to feeding areas calling constantly, Orange-chinned Parakeets chatter and screech back and forth from a Cecropia tree full of fruit. Howlers start up fairly early, prompting you out to see what wonders wait, always something new and intriguing. Will we move to Panama? What we do know is that a couple of weeks only leaves more questions, but we have seen enough to warrant a return. The bigger question for now, is the Nikon D800 a camera wildlife photographers could use in the real world? You be the judge, I know my answer.