Giant woodpeckers, howler monkeys, and the Panama Canal

This was a very full day and it’s not over yet.  We took a taxi to Metropolitan Park (a huge forested acreage in the middle of downtown Panama City) to do some birdwatching.  Yes, it is bird heaven here, but the birds are very high up in the trees and a 200 mm lens just doesn’t cut it.  We spent a lot of time doing this.

Steve spotted a giant woodpecker with a bright red head, and I spent 20 minutes trying to get a photo of it, and this was the best I could do for a close-up.

That was maxi-telephoto and cropped to about 1/2 the image size of the original.  And this is a large bird the size of our Pileated Woodpeckers (14-15 inches in length).  But patience was rewarded when I followed the bird around a few trees and over a hill and finally caught “her” (based on less red in her head than the male) on a tree only 20 feet above my head.

This is the Crimson crested Woodpecker, one of the two largest woodpeckers, weighing up to a half pound.  The chisel beak is adept at opening up soft wood that has been excavated by wood boring insects, and these birds can produce large holes in a very short time.  The large strong toes and stiff tail feather come in very handy when the bird rears back to hit the tree hard with its chisel shaped bill.  Quite an impressive sight.

We saw quite a few new (to us) bird species, including a handsome White chested Puffbird (Wikipedia has a nice photo — mine is about 1/100 the size of this image):  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White-necked_Puffbird

When leaves suddenly started falling all around us, we looked up and saw these guys moving slowly through the canopy — a troop of 5 or so Howler Monkeys.

These are large bodied leaf eating monkeys that usually occur in family groups.  Surprisingly they were quiet, not vocalizing at all, and if you’ve ever heard howler monkeys vocalize, you remember it because their hooting is almost deafening.  Males are distinguished by their white scrotum, which stands out against their black fur, and you can clearly see that here.  Sorry, but it was dark in this forest, so it doesn’t show up as well as it should.

The next stop on today’s agenda was the Miraflores Locks, the first set of locks from the Pacific Ocean side.  The visitor center houses a shaded grandstand so you can sit and eat a hotdog and watch the ships go through the lock.  Ships actually go through a three stage elevation (or lowering, depending on direction) in just the one lock before entering Gatun Lake.  Raising the ship about 27 feet takes about 10 minutes.  Here is a ship just entering from the Pacific Ocean,and a tourist boat (on the right) that has passed the first gate of the lock..

Here the tourist boat has just started its ascent in the second part of the lock.  This is achieved by letting water in from Lake Gatun through three large (18 feet in diameter) culverts at the bottom of the lock. Only the tops of the letters “Atlas” were visible before the water rose.

And as it rose higher in the lock

Cruise ships pay $100-$200 K to go through the entire length of the Panama Canal and the trip takes 8-10 hours.  Container ships (which might carry 4500 of those containers that you see the semis pulling down the road) pay $300 to $400 K for one transit throught the canal.  Now I know what is fueling the construction of the high rise skyline of downtown Panama.

Frigate birds coasted over the lock as we watched the boats move through.  The visitor center and museum were quite interesting and the air conditioning felt great after a morning of sweating on our walk around Metropolitan park.

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