It’s a Bat Cave Day!

For those looking for an exciting, multi-faceted adventure, full of mud, fascinating and beautiful creepy crawlies, stalactites, and lots and lots of bats, this excursion is definitely up your alley! But if instead this is your idea of your worst nightmare, give it a chance! Face your fears, nothing will hurt you in there and it’s the experience of a lifetime!

Leaving directly after breakfast, we pile into the boat and our captain drives us about 20 minutes to Bahia Honda (Deep Bay) which is situated about halfway along our beautiful island back towards Bocastown on the main island, Isla Colon.

Our able captain has “tossed” a sufficient number of kayaks and paddles into the boat with us before leaving Tranquilo. Upon arrival at a mangrove-shaded river entrance the captain unloads the kayaks and we take turns climbing in. Waving goodbye to the boat, we set off up the slow-moving river, taking in the peaceful forest of tall mangroves and the occasional kingfisher flyby.   

The kayak part of our trek lasts about a half hour or so, depending on how much the guests would like to take their time to drink in their surroundings. We keep an eye out for wildlife and sometimes a sloth might be curled up in some thick branches hanging out over the water or a troop of white-faced capuchins may pass through the taller branches in search of a fruiting tree. Yellow Mangrove Warblers can be heard singing from the treetops and a mangrove cuckoo may come out of the shadows and treat our guests to a sight of this beautiful yet skulky bird. And we’re always on the lookout for basilisks and caimans!

As the river gets smaller and turns to freshwater, we leave the mangrove ecosystem behind until eventually we find ourselves in one of the indigenous Ngäbe communities sprinkled throughout the Bocas del Toro archipelago. We debark the kayaks and set them out of the way before heading up to a small restaurant owned by the family who are the cave gatekeepers. After a quick bathroom stop, we get ready for the above-ground portion of our adventure and head into the forest.

Depending on the time of year, the trails leading to the bat cave can be a complete muckfest. There’s no need to try and avoid the mud because you’ll eventually have no choice but to wade through. Ankle-deep is the worse it gets but when it comes to unsquelching a submerged foot, you may have to go digging for your shoe! All just a part of the experience!

As we follow the trail, we’ll keep an eye out for hummingbirds called hermits feeding from the heliconias, sloths hiding in the cacao trees and Bocas del Toro’s famous red frogs, tiny and brilliantly colored strawberry poison dart frogs, around the base of trees in the moist leaf litter.

The mouth of the cave sneaks up on you, you’re cruising through the woods, taking in the forest when suddenly you’re looking into the mouth of a dark abyss. An earthy, musty, non-offensive smell along with thin, high pitched squeaks emanate from the hole. Flashlights appear and we take a big swig of water before slowly making our way down the rocks, taking our time not to slip.

This is when you realize that we’re getting into a stream, in fact that same stream we just kayaked up is now around your ankles. Slowly stepping deeper into the dark, we stop and look up. A massive crevice reaches far above our heads and every crack, every nook is occupied by masses of hanging bats, shoulder to shoulder huddled in a writhing, furry mat over our heads. Careful not to shine the lights at the bats eyes, we sweep the lights across this impressive gathering of nightlife.

Now, this is an assurance we often make at this point along the excursion, none of the bats that use this cave feed on blood, aka, YOU. They have no interest in us humans. Rather, they are nectavores, like the Orange-nectar Bat, frugivores, like the Jamaican Fruit-eating Bat and insectivores like the White-lined Bats. Not only that, these bats are not going to get tangled up in your hair or land on your back like out of some horror movie, in fact, that’s the last thing they want to do and they happen to be more than fully capable of ensuring just that. With honed sonar detection, they know full well that you’re there in the pitch black darkness and easily avoid you (and each other!) with their skilled mammalian flight. What is delightful is the light rustle followed by a soft gust of wind against the side of your face caused by a close flyby!

The cave goes in quite a distance and it’s the guests decision as to how far they’d like to go. As we delve deeper, the intrepid explorers discover a variety of interesting invertebrates on the cave walls, various spiders and cave crickets. In the water you can sometimes get a glint of eye-shine reflected from a small fish or shrimp. The stalactites are a highlight of this underground adventure, their rippled, sparkling surface commanding the darkness. Some of these geological formations have grown quite large over eons of mineral deposit as water moves through the ground above and slowly drips through the ground, carrying limestone which is re-deposited to form some impressively massive hanging structures. The limestone in the ground above is what’s left of ancient coral reefs dating back to the Pliocene and Miocene era between 5 to 20 million years ago.

Careful search of the cave walls reveals embedded shells of various sorts and the loose rocks and soil in the water running past our ankles has even been known to harbor the occasional interesting fossils or sharks tooth. As we move deeper inward, the stream gets a bit deeper (waist to chest-deep!) and the footing is a little precarious, so the going is slow. One favorite destination in the cave is a nine-foot deep pool that has formed, surrounded by a couple of small waterfalls. The more daring folks of the group might take that opportunity for a full on jump from a rock ledge into the murky depths for a plunge into the crisp waters.

Coming back out of the cave, we squint in the daylight as we switch off our flashlights. The world above ground is how we left it, and the lush greenery of the forest is still punctuated by birdsong and the brightly colored dart frogs hopping over twigs and leaves. We kayak down the forested creek and pass indigenous N’gobe paddling by in their traditional dugout canoes, called cayucos.

To spend a morning exploring an underground world is an experience unlike any other and a memory that you’ll be sharing with friends and family for years. At the mouth of the creek, our boat and captain are waiting for us, we pile in and enjoy some snacks and cold drinks while relaxing as we watch the beautiful scenery of Bocas del Toro zoom by as our captain takes us back to the lodge.

Relatioships in nature

Many of us have heard the name of a bird with the word “ant” in it: Antbird, Antwren Antshrike, just to mention some.  I imagine the first thought of a non-birder, is that they feed on ants, but the truth is different.  It’s related to a wonderful strategy that some of these birds, with the Ant word in their name, have evolved to take advantage of a particular group of ants: the Army Ants.

Panama Wildlife

Army ants moving through the forest.

Army ants are extremely successful in their hunting strategies.  They disperse all over an area of the tropical forest, and “cover” everything (ground, trunks, branches), and all the living creatures that encounter them try to avoid them, as fast as they can  (jumping, flying…), it’s a race for their lives. During the moments of craziness i’s when the antbirds show up and “collect” whatever they can, before these specimens fall into the army ants’ control. Obviously some other birds, without the “Ant” word on their name follow or take advantage of the army ants swarms too.

Birding Panama

Chestnut-backed Antbird (Poliocrania exsul), a common forest understory species, that is heard more often than seen, can be an opportunistically species that follows the army ants, while the swarm passes through its territory.

This is one more example of the importance of every single creature has within the ecosystems, a little disturbance can cause the reduction of an insect population, or the absence of it can easily be link with the drop of a bird or a mammal population in the same area.

It’s a Beach Day!

Beach day! Everyone gets pumped when they hear those words. Heading out on this delightful excursion is a decision made at breakfast: Sunny skies? Yes! It’s go time. So everyone throws on their bathing suits, something to cover up from the sun (we’re a mere nine degrees off from the equator which, for gringo skin, that basically means dead on), something to read, a camera and extra sunscreen for sure.

We pack the boat with kayaks, boogie boards and perhaps a stand up paddle board or two, load up the cooler with icy cold drinks (don’t skimp on the cerveza!), snacks and a picnic lunch. Once everyone is in, we point the bow of the boat to the Zapatillas, a pair of low-lying islands that, along with the barrier reef behind them, help keep Tranquilo Bay tranquilo, protecting it from the open sea.  Like two little shoes stepping forward one after the other, the forested Zapatillas islands sport long sand beaches while our calmer, protected waters back at the lodge make for purely mangrove ecosystems.

These sand beaches are a very important feature for more than just sandcastles, they provide nesting habitat for various sea turtles that occupy our Caribbean waters during the nesting season, May through October. Sea turtles that nest on the Bocas del Toro beaches include Leatherback, Hawksbill, Loggerhead and the Green sea turtle. For this reason, we have a lot of respect for these islands, which are included in the Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park which also covers great stretches of coral reef from the Zapatillas across the forests of Isla Bastimentos itself–an entire third of the island–and finally the mangrove coast and islets on the mainland-facing side of the island. While spotting a sea turtle is rare (the females haul up onto the beach after dark and the young emerge mainly at night) there is the odd baby sea turtle that gets caught up in the roots surrounding it’s underground nest and needs a helping hand to get to the water.

As we get settled, settling into our chairs, slopping on sunscreen and taking a swig of cold water, some folks might want to take a walk around the picturesque island. Meanwhile, others may decide to kayak the clear waters, take a stab at a stand-up paddleboard or catch a wave on a boogie board if the “surf’s up”. The sloping beach leads down into the warm Caribbean water and you can use a mask to hunt for fun shells or simply bob over the gentle waves and soak in the sunshine.

Alvaro or Sanchez, our gallant boat captains, might break out the machete to show the lengthy and skilled process of opening a coconut so guests might drink the delicious, lightly sweet water (with some of it inevitably dribbling down your front) before cracking it open and sharing the rich meat. They often pack a fishing rod, too and are always happy to give a casting lesson!

The captains are always good for helping build a sand castle, too. Together with some gung-ho youngsters, we’ve made some pretty impressive creations. On one of our trips out to the Zaps, a nine-year old wanted me to help her build a thatch palm hut. We got to work while her parents took a stroll around the island and they were pretty bowled over when we welcomed them back with a little palm thatch “casita” where we’d set all our chairs and felt like we’d for sure come out on top if we were stranded on a desert island.

With a lovely picnic lunch courtesy of the hardworking kitchen staff, we munch away and stare out across the shimmery blue waters and the lapping waves. A hermit crab just may saunter through “camp” and a spotted sandpiper might bob-tail it’s jaunty self across the sand down by the water. The Zapatillas, while small, still have their share of wildlife. Sloths live in the trees and turtles and caimans wallow in the flooded forest of the interior. Yellow-crowned night herons roost on the far side of the island and, during migration, you can see heaps of warblers and falcons and other birds of prey passing through. And on the boat-ride to and from the island, there’s always the opportunity for a dolphin enounter so be sure to keep eyes on the lookout!

Beach day can be as active or relaxed as you want it to be, in fact, there’s even plenty of time for it to be both! The guests decide how long they want to stay and when it’s time to go. Depending on the snorkeling conditions, we may have a chance to snorkel right there off the beach or, if it’s not excellent visibility, we can stop at another of our favorite snorkel spots on the boat ride back to Tranquilo. That is, if we haven’t already tired ourselves out from another delightful beach day!

Appreciating our Mangroves

You might recognize mangroves as those bushy trees that grow in the saltwater tidal zones of warmer climes, standing on root systems that form a complex, intertwining network that appears as if no living thing could navigate its way through. But rather, mangrove ecosystems are responsible for supporting a glorious abundance of life, much more than is apparent at first, second, even third glance!

In fact, mangroves provide an enormous multitude of environmental contributions and ecosystem services which benefit a plethora of species (including us!) as well as contributing to the health of the environment itself.

The Salt Life: How Do They Survive?

Mangroves occur worldwide within the salty and brackish waters of earth’s tropical & subtropical latitudes and withstand the twice-daily rise and fall of the tides. Rather than denoting one particular species, the word “mangrove” in fact makes up more than 80 tree or shrub species known as “halophytes” meaning able to survive in saltwater conditions. Red mangroves achieve this by using salt-filtering taproots to filter out freshwater from the salty environment in which they exist. Other species, such as our white, black and tea mangroves, excrete salt through glands on their leaves, leaving a surface of dried salt crystals.

The Submerged Life: How Do They Breathe?

Mangroves truly live in conditions that are nearly intolerable. Not only do they have to constantly extract or exude salt from their system, but also there’s that pesky universal dependence on oxygen that all life shares, leaving these trees with the complicated job of obtaining enough with which to grow and thrive despite twice-daily inundation and roots sunk into oxygen-deprived mud.

But mangroves have evolved unique adaptations to survive against all these odds and colonize an otherwise unoccupied and ultimately harsh environment. Special aerial roots in some mangroves reach slowly downward from taller branches and take in air, as do specialized underground roots in other species that send up “pneumatophores”, or upward facing roots, which gather oxygen at low tide. The prop roots of the red mangrove have tiny holes called “lenticels” which close when submerged at high tide and open as the waters recede to gather the essential oxygen.

A Forest of Roots & How it all Begins:

Some species, like the red mangrove, grow upon prop roots, meaning the base of the tree is supported aerially by a multitude of bowed roots that plant into the mud and provide a wide support system allowing the tree to withstand constant tidal and wave action including storms, hurricanes and even tsunamis by dissipating wave energy. This provides essential protection to coastal  communities and can mean devastation in strong storm surges for regions where mangrove forests have been removed.

Mangroves are actually able to grow their own, unique ecosystems, practically from nothing more than a bit of sand! Areas that once might have been a shallow sandbar can grow into a completely established mangrove island in a matter of 50 years or so.

Mangroves seeds are known as propagules, meaning they are actually living seedlings before they even fall from the parent tree. Red mangrove seeds are elongated and as they float in the shallows they’ll slowly turn vertical when ready to root so as to more easily lodge into the mud. If unable to root, the  seedling will alter its density to float horizontally again until it senses more favorable conditions. In effect, the seed is actually “looking” for calm, shallow waters appropriate for a young mangrove to begin to grow and thrive..and more are always sure to soon follow. As soon as a root network is formed, fine silt and sediments floating through the slow moving water collect and the resulting substrate is better able to support even more mangrove seedlings, eventually forming a forest.

A Thriving Ecosystem Results:

And so begins the construction of an ecosystem that will not only support a fantastic diversity of species, including some that are endemic (found nowhere else) to mangrove forests, but the intricate tangle of roots also supports and provides a protective nursery for young fish that will grow into many of our reef and commercially harvested species.

But not just fish benefit from the shelter and protection from larger prey and food offered by a healthy functioning mangrove system and its thick network of prop roots. In fact, mangrove roots themselves are literally coated with life—crabs, snails, barnacles, oysters, worms, sponges, algae, anemones, shrimp and a great deal more.

And all of this life provides a massive food supply to support even more life across the food web. Wading birds such as night herons and green ibis nest and feed in mangrove forests, various mammals like crab-eating raccoons, common black hawks and even monkeys will hunt among the prop roots searching out crustaceans and kingfishers will lurk hidden on a branch waiting for the perfect fish to reveal itself from the shaded shallows.

American Pygmy Kingfisher
Mangrove Periwinkle

Even snakes, lizards and frogs can use the mangroves as their hunting grounds. And then there’s the menagerie of ants, spiders, moths, and scorpions that feed among the branches and nest in hollowed twigs above the water. And if you’re lucky, you might find a blooming orchid growing off a mangrove branch and you’re sure to not miss the termite nests nestled in the high crooks of these salt-soaked trees.  

Life Has Leaf Litter to Thank:

So among all of these species, how is all this life supported by a “simple” collection of salt-loving trees? Where does this food web begin, you might wonder? Well, the growing mangroves drop leaves throughout the year, directly adding nutrients to the water and sediment below. When you see yellow leaves sprinkled among the greenery of the red mangroves, they’re not just dead leaves, they’re a special  means of extracting the salt that they are taking in. The mangrove system will direct it all into specific individual leaves (known as the “sacrificial leaf”) which turn yellow and die, falling into the water beneath.

All this “detritis” (dead organic matter) that collects on the seafloor beneath creates a rich leaf litter layer that is full of nutrients. This is the food supply that supports the microorganisms below the water, including bacteria  and fungi. These organisms, called detritivores or decomposers are key species that assist in the decomposition process. Microbes and aquatic invertebrates feed on the decay and the young nursery fish and crustaceans in turn feed upon them. And on up the food web a multitude of species is sated, resulting in a plethora of thriving, well-fed life.

When Mangroves Are Around, Everyone Benefits:

And as if all this weren’t enough, mangroves are also crucially important in their role in cycling and storing carbon, even more so than primary rainforests, throughout tropical ecosystem, helping to reduce this greenhouse gas in our atmosphere. Mangroves also prevent coastal erosion and filter rainwater runoff.

Yet despite how essential mangrove ecosystems are to so many species, it is sadly true that, despite protection and restoration efforts, over half of the world’s mangroves have been removed for development (including for tourism, agriculture expansion, shrimp farming, marinas and roadways) in recent times.

According to the Mangrove Action Project, “We have already lost over half of the world’s original mangrove forest area, estimated at 32 million hectares (app. 80 million acres). In 2007, less than 15 million hectares (37 million acres) of mangroves remain. The current rate of mangrove loss is approximately 1% per annum (according to the Food and Agriculture Organization), or roughly 150,000 hectares (370,050 acres) of mangrove wetlands lost each year.”

Green Kingfisher

Mangroves are precious ecosystems that we can’t afford to lose. To become aware of their importance is the first step and to realize that they are declining can perhaps help move us to action to ensure their preservation through restoration and protection. By supporting organizations that work to protect mangroves and sharing with others about the essential ecosystem services these coastal forests provide, we are taking steps toward helping maintain these biodiverse treasures.  

Furry residents of the tropical forest

Panama has three species of sloths: the Hoffman´s Two-toed Sloth (Choloepus hoffmanni), the Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth (Bradypus variegatus), and the unique Pygmy three-toed sloth (Bradypus pygmaeus), restricted to the Escudo de Veraguas Island, an island about 2 hours by boat from Tranquilo Bay.

Two-toed Sloth Panama

Two Hoffman´s Two-toed Sloth (Choloepus hoffmanni)

The life of all the sloths occur mostly at the trees, where they perform extremely well, they are also good swimmers, but don’t do it in a regular basis, only when its needed; they try to avoid the ground, where they are more vulnerable to potential predators (one of their main predators are big cats, and a sloth on the ground will be an easy meal).

Panama Wildlife

Hoffman´s Two-toed Sloth (Choloepus hoffmanni)

Two-toed Sloths are slightly larger than three-toed Sloths, harder to see, because of their nocturnal habits, never the less, they can be observed during the day, actively moving or feeding, for short periods of time. You can imagine how happy we where when we found those two Hoffman´s Two-toed Sloths, when we encounter them a few weeks ago, taking a siesta and eating a snack in a very open area, at eye level!

Caterpillar of the Tetrio Sphinx Moth

One look at this magnificently showy caterpillar gives warning to any potential predator by way of its brightly patterned body: Don’t eat me, I’m toxic!

Wildlife PanamaThe frangipani hornworm, also called plumeria caterpillar, can be found crawling around on the clean, elegant branches of its namesake the plumeria tree (genus Frangipani). Oblivious to the world, this munching on the broad, fleshy leaves that form clusters at the end of otherwise bare branches.

The flowering plumeria tree might be best known for that gloriously delightful fragrance that wafts off of the famous Hawaiian flower necklaces (called “leis”) made with strings of these crisp, beautiful blossoms. While plumerias are native to various parts of the world, the white plumeria we have growing here at Tranquilo is indeed native to Central America.  

Birding Panama

The frangipani caterpillars hatch from clusters of 50-100 eggs lain under the broad, fleshy leaves of the plumeria which provide the caterpillars with an ample supply of food which they waste no time getting right to work on.

The leaves of the plumeria produce a white, toxic latex that the caterpillar is unaffected by and can sequester into its body as defense. This “aposematic” or warning coloration signifies that this creature is dangerous to eat while allowing it to go about its showy business in full view without fear of attack. Humans would be wise to leave them alone as well, not just for the fact of their toxicity, but they’re also known to bite and the small hairs on their bodies can cause irritation when inadvertently rubbed in one’s eyes.

As the tiny caterpillars methodically eat their way through leaf after leaf they can, in their efforts combined, ultimately ingest the entirety of leaves on the host tree, leaving bare sticks in their wake–in as little as a week! While this might seem as if these caterpillars are a pest and are harming the tree, this is a natural cycle created by co-evolution, the tree is not dead and the leaves and flowers will return, so don’t fear! Once the caterpillars have gorged themselves, reaching a hefty length of about six inches, they will descend to the ground below and bury themselves beneath the leaf litter.

So what comes next? From the ground emerges the Tertio Sphynx Moth, an aerodynamically formed, fast-flying moth from a family known for its ability to hover, allowing it to easily feed at flowers. What’s interesting is that, upon hatching, the moth is of course attracted to the delicious scent of the oleiferous plumeria flowers above. Well, wouldn’t you know that the tree that this caterpillar not long ago obliterated in its quest to gorge itself silly has now fooled the resulting moth into searching for nectar from a flower that produces not a lick of the sugary liquid! In fact, that intoxicating smell actually comes from scent nodules below the bud. Nonetheless, in its probing, the sphinx moth is carrying out the act of pollination that the plumeria tree needs to reproduce.

Just yet another wild and complex drama in the wonderful world that is the tropics!

 

Day Tour @ Tranquilo Bay

Bocas Day TourWe are really excited to be offering a day tour @ Tranquilo Bay starting this week.  People in the community and a number of visitors to the archipelago have contacted us over time and asked us about providing use of the grounds and facilities to travelers within the archipelago.  We have worked through all the challenges so that we may offer an awesome experience to our day tour participants without effecting our wonderful guests.  So, we begin offering day tours this Wednesday.

Kayaking PanamaWe have coordinated with a botero to provide transportation to and from Tranquilo Bay from Isla Colon at a reasonable price which makes it easy for people to sign up and head out to Isla Bastimentos for a jungle and ocean experience.

Bocas del Toro SnorkelingWe have added a new Day Tour page on our website for you to learn all about it.  As of today, the tour will be available on Wednesdays and Thursdays for up to ten people each day.  Please contact us if you have any questions or have a larger group that would like to visit.

 

One of those special moments in nature

Birding Panama

Two Double-toothed Kites perched, on the same tree, can you see them?

Some time ago I was at the observation tower, looking for raptors, with a raptor specialist, and suddenly I spotted a Double-toothed Kite  (Harpagus bidentatus) near by, and we started enjoying the great views of this relatively common raptor (in this part of the country).

The name of this bird refers to the two teeth like shape structures on the edges of both sides of the upper mandible.

Then, a second Double-tooth Kite shows up, near the first one.  They were a pair – that’s not so common.  We were enjoying (even more) the time we got to spend in their presence. And a few minutes later the first bird flies down to the ground grab something with its feet.  Then it flew to another tree in front of us again which definitely made our day!

Canopy Tower Bocas

One of the Kites dive in to the ground and catch something

 

Western Caribbean Slope Birdlist Update

Fall Migration

From left to right: Short-billed Dowitcher, Red Knot, Greater Yellowlegs and Black-necked Stilt.

I am happy to share with all of you the updated Clements list for the different locations where we go birding along the Western Caribbean Slope of Panama.  At this point we have a total of 541 species in our list, and for the Tranquilo Bay grounds, a total of 221 species (+1 subspecies, the Yellow “Mangrove” Warbler).  The updated bird list may be downloaded below.

One of the last additions to our list was the Red Knot (Calidris canutus), a migrant shorebird that can nest as far as the North of Canada, and pass through Panama during its winter migration to southern South America. These birds can go through distances up to 15,000 km, between circumpolar breeding areas and winter grounds in South America, Africa, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

Last fall, during birding trips, we observed this species on two occasions, but only one individual, at the same area, the mouth of the Changuinola River.

Sources:

https://birdsna.org/Species-Account/bna/species/redkno/introduction

https://www.avesdechile.cl/374.htm

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Red_Knot/lifehistory

TBWCS918

Praying from my window

Insects PanamaNature lovers can be defined in many ways, because we are very different human beings, but one thing that I always find in all of us, is the capacity for surprise and the excitement that any natural event that we find provides. We also know that it can happen anywhere at anytime, I’m sure that, while reading these lines, if you are a nature lover, you are reliving one of the memories of wild encounters under strange situations, at the “wrong time”, “wrong place” or just in an unexpected location.

One event that we got to witness was a praying mantis hatch … in our window! As you can imagine, it was not hard to find, but the timing was great.  We got to see all the young mantis around their Ootheca, which is the protective covering that houses the eggs until they hatch. Young praying mantis will hatch from 3 to 6 weeks after the eggs were laid and they will be an avid predator like its parents.  These nymphs go for small prey but can also feast on their siblings as some studies point out.

It was a gift to be there, witnessing this amazing natural event.

When we found them, not knowing how much time the hatch would last, we immediately went to the school to show the kids and anybody we found along the way.  Almost everybody on site that day got to experience this ephemeris nature show and we all have a new memory to store in our wildlife encounter’s shelf.Wildlife Panama