Fruit feeder at Canopy Lodge (Valle de Anton, Panama)

Screenshot (19)50 Favorite Places #15

Can you have a favorite place that you’ve never been to IRL? Stuck at home, except for socially distant runs/walks and more-or-less harrowing resupply missions, I’ve started watching the Cornell Ornithology Lab’s live feeder cams – and in particular, the one trained on the fruit feeder at Panama’s Canopy Lodge.

My inspiration came from someone on Bird Twitter whom I’ve never met (how did I come to follow a guy from Patagonia who now lives in the UK? dunno, but I’m glad I did). He posted something about wood-rails, along with a photo. Instantly, I was consumed with burning wood-rail lust.

That was a week and a half ago (March 29, if you must know, when I had expected to be heading back to Mexico City from Oaxaca via Puebla). My first Panamanian birds were Clay-colored Thrushes and Black-chested Jays. The former was a species I knew, albeit vaguely, from my travels, but the latter required some looking into. Was it a jay or a magpie? I jotted down field marks on a piece of scratch paper – black head and chest, lemon yellow underparts, solid blue-gray back – and googled “Panama jay” to find a match. Going from complete cluelessness to a solid ID was satisfying. Addictive, even.

More birds began to turn up at the feeder, and with a bit of internet sleuthing and my Mexico, Trinidad and Ecuador field guides (I’ve not yet acquired a guide to the birds of Panama), I was able to identify most of them. The Dusky-faced and Crimson-backed Tanagers stoked my birding ego (wasn’t I smart, first to recognize them as tanagers, and then to pick them out of the extensive “Panama tanager” line-up), and it was fun to see Tennessee Warblers in unfamiliar surroundings. The Thick-billed Euphonias reminded me of the Elegant Euphonias I’d seen in Mexico City’s Bosque de Tlalpan. The Buff-throated Saltator was tough (what’s a saltator??), but I eventually got it. Hummingbirds, as always, challenged me, their plumage changing color with the light – but yes, that one with the distinctly rufous tail was in fact a Rufous-tailed Hummingbird.

No wood-rails, though.

Birding via a live feeder cam is similar to birding in real life, in that flurries of avian activity alternate with long stretches in which not much is going on. Insects buzz. Leaves sway in the breeze. Unseen birds whistle and chirp and twitter. In real life, this tends to make me restless. On the screen, for reasons I don’t fully understand, it soothes me.

Birds aren’t the only creatures to visit the feeder. Squirrels often climb or leap onto the platform and steal bananas. I’m reminded of my father’s long-running squirrel wars, and because I’m my father’s daughter, I feel an invigorating flash of anger: fuck you, squirrels, go away and stay away! But I experience no such anger toward the lizards that also make their way to the platform. In fact, I feel almost as much affection for them as I do for the birds (and less pressure to identify them).

The fruits on the feeder are constantly changing. There are usually bananas, dangling in a bunch from an unseen support. Sometimes the bunch is ample and pristine; sometimes it’s lopsided and picked-over and brown; sometimes it’s missing entirely. In the interest of naturalism, the feeder platform holds a decaying log and is covered with bark. Fruit and other food is scattered on top of the bark – orange halves seem to be popular, along with papaya or possibly melon, and what looks like cooked rice. A hummingbird feeder hangs to the right.

I feel lucky each time my session in front of the screen coincides with the restocking of the feeder. The human presence is jarring, but welcome. Usually the worker’s back is to the viewer as he (so far it’s always been a “he”) spreads fruit and rice-gruel on the platform or hangs a fresh bunch of bananas from the support. Once, though, a man in a short-sleeved shirt (it’s warm in Panama) turned directly to the camera to smile and wave. I waved back, momentarily forgetting he couldn’t see me. When the feeder is depleted, as it was yesterday afternoon, I worry. Has the lodge been closed and abandoned, its staff sent home? And the man who waved, is he okay? Please, let him be okay.

A few hours or a day later, when I check back, I’ll see that the feeder has been restocked, and feel reassured. And so it was this morning. Yesterday’s ratty orange halves had been replaced with what looked like Asian pears and some ripe plantains, halved lengthwise.

It’s good to know that someone’s still there, doing normal things.

It took a couple of days of intermittent watching, but I did eventually see my target Gray-cowled Wood-Rail. A pair of them, in fact. They’re handsome birds – dove-gray heads, big eyes (for a bird), cinnamon chests and long red legs – but they wear their good looks lightly. Unlike some birds I can think of (Crimson-backed Tanagers, I’m looking at you), they’re not flashy or aggressive. The overall impression they exude is of gentleness . . . and, when they flick those little black tails, playfulness. I’ve seen them multiple times since then, and it’s always a treat.

My virtual Panama life list is now up to 15 species, the most recent addition being an Orange-billed Sparrow that lit briefly on the platform as I switched back and forth between the feeder cam and this post. Someday, if my world returns to normal and I have the ability – in other words, if I’m lucky – I’d love to catch a Copa Airlines flight to Panama City and make my way to Valle de Anton. I’ll check into the lodge, park myself by the window (or maybe sit out on the veranda – I’m not sure of the set-up), and greet the birds that comforted and distracted me during that bad time when my city was shut down, shelves were bare, and people were dying by the thousands and being thrown out of work by the millions.

In the meantime, to visit Canopy Lodge from wherever it is that you’re hunkered down, all you have to do is click here.

Stay safe!

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