Searching for Fascinating Wildlife: Cotingas & Stunning Poison Dart Frogs

Life bird! We almost always hear this statement from our guests after observing the Snowy Cotinga for the first time. This elusive bird is one of the rarest species on our list and, therefore, very important in our tours.

Male Snowy Cotinga by Natalia Decastro Gonzalez

The Snowy Cotinga or Carpodectes nitidus is endemic to Central America, restricted to the continental Caribbean side, from northern Honduras to northwestern Panama.

This bird is not easy to find, and its population has declined due to habitat loss throughout the Americas. Bocas del Toro is one of the few places where this species is found in Central America and the only place where it can be seen in Panama.

Less than ten minutes from Tranquilo Bay by boat, we find this cotinga on the northern edge of Popa Island. It likes to perch for somewhat prolonged periods in the emergent trees of the upper canopy of the forest adjoining the island’s mangroves. Sometimes in pairs or solitary and rarely in small groups of up to four individuals.

The cotinga is almost unmistakable; it does not overlap with other white cotingas. However, you may be able to confuse it at first sight with some tityra, similar in size, apart from the dominant white. Still, the facial variances that make them different are noticeable.

Snowy Cotinga by Roger Morales

Males are white at first sight, but upon further inspection, you notice some bluish-grey areas on the crown, nape, scapulars, rump, and tail. The females are generally quite different, much grayer, and have a blackish crown and mantle. Their scapulars and rump have brown coloration, while the neck, chest, and belly are grayish-white. They have a noticeable white eye-ring that contrasts with the dark iris. Male juveniles, as in most birds, can resemble females.

These cotingas are completely frugivorous (fruit feeders). Their favorite trees are from the families: Lauraceae, Loranthaceae, and Moraceae (Ficus). This species may perform micro migrations according to the fruiting of their favorite trees. Males can make sounds but are very rarely heard. There are no published recordings of this species.

Of course, this is not the only bird present in this area. It is also possible to spot toucans, kingfishers, woodpeckers, and mangrove specialties such as Mangroove Cuckoo and Mangroove Warbler (Yellow W.).

But the birds are not the only protagonists of this tour; the famous Strawberry Poison Dart Frog or Oophaga pumilio is also found here. As soon as we turn off the engine and get off the boat, we can hear these tiny and precious frogs sing.

Strawberry Poison Dart Frog or Oophaga pumilio photographed on Isla Popa.
Poison Dart Frog by Nilda Mussi

When the islands separated from the continent around 10,000 years ago, each island developed particular morphologies and sub-speciations in various animals after the last global glaciation. The Strawberry Poison Dart Frog is the one that stands out the most, and this frog species holds the world record for the most extensive variations in its colors. Each island of the Bocas del Toro Archipelago has its morphology and variations; sometimes, they can be red, orange, blue, or yellow, and occasionally green; they can be of different colors simultaneously and be very different from one another. This frog has about 30 different morphs and about 150 variations. Still, you will be able to recognize them because they do not vary in size. All the males emit the same sounds, somewhat similar to the calls of the cicadas but in lower tones.

The frog is also poisonous. It has glands with neurotoxic poison in the skin, which, although they do not represent a danger to people, you should never touch. Its aposematic coloration warns predators of its toxicity, so it has none. It moves about calmly during the day, and the origin of its poison may come from ants and other insects.

Grey and Yellow Strawberry Poison Dart Frog or Oophaga pumilio photographed on Isla Popa.
Poison Dart Frog by Nilda Mussi

These amphibians can be very intelligent; their behavior is impressive. The parents are paternalistic, and both are in charge of caring for the young in their different stages. The female lays between two to five eggs away from the sun, usually on the leaves, near some small body of water. The male fertilizes and moistens them, keeping them alive for the next ten to twelve days. Once the tadpoles are born, the female carries them one by one on her back to bromeliads that could be fifteen meters high. She will return two to three times a week, for six to eight weeks, to lay infertile eggs that will serve as the only food for the tadpoles at this stage of their life.

Strawberry Poison Dart Frog on a leaf photographed on Isla Popa.
Poison Dart Frog by Nilda Mussi

Popa Island is a recommended attraction during your stay in Tranquilo Bay. If you are a serious bird and amphibian watcher or love animals and nature, do not miss meeting the Snowy Cotinga and the Strawberry Poison Dart Frog.

Caribbean Sea Adventure: Bocas Mangrove Kayak & Snorkel You Will Love

Without a doubt, this is one of my favorite tours – and it is the strangest at the same time. We visit the colorful and complex submarine world located within the Caribbean waters. With the help of a kayak, a diving mask, and a snorkel, we discover innumerable corals, fish, jellyfish, crustaceans, and many other living beings, very different from those we see on land.

We begin from Tranquilo Bay’s dock, where we board the kayaks to go to the mangrove lagoon. To reach it, we paddle for a few minutes through the bay’s calm waters until we hit the mangroves. Once there, we cross through passageways and narrow tunnels of this peculiar marine forest dominated by red mangroves.

Slowly crossing this habitat in the kayaks, we appreciate several crabs of different sizes and colors, moving on to the aerial roots of the mangroves. A little higher up in the upper branches, with some luck, we spot kingfishers, herons, warblers, and other birds specialized in this micro-ecosystem.

These forests can look very similar, appearing drab and unproductive. But in reality, they are complex ecological communities, which are the habitat of hundreds of species from different kingdoms. Mangroves gradually colonize the shores of the sea, trapping sediment with their roots, creating soil, and at the same time decomposing biomass, perfect as a habitat for crabs, shrimp, insects, and other invertebrates. Of course, life is not restricted to the sediments and the aerial zone of the mangroves; inside the water, there are endless other organisms.

Dwarf Round Herring (Jenkinsia lamprotaenia) swimming between the mangrove roots
Dwarf Round Herring (Jenkinsia lamprotaenia) swimming between the mangrove roots

We submerge and start snorkeling once we arrive at the open lagoon. The roots of the red mangrove are an excellent site for fish reproduction; they are like the ocean’s nursery. It is possible to observe many kinds in this area: Dwarf Round Herring, Schoolmaster, Striped Parrotfish, French Grunt, Three-spot Damselfish, and Neon Gobies. Clams and colorful sea sponges may also be seen attached to the roots. And that’s not all; the lagoon shelters many Upside-down Jellies, who take refuge on the ground in the middle of the small lake, with their tentacles pointing upwards as if they were anemones. Diving in a little, it is possible to appreciate these strange organisms from very close, without any risk.

 Upsidedown Jelly (Cassiopea frondosa)
Upsidedown Jelly (Cassiopea frondosa)

After having met the main species of the lagoon, we go up again in the kayaks, this time heading to the coral reefs, located on the opposite side of the mangroves.

Corals and mangroves have a unique symbiotic relationship. In contrast, mangroves hold the excess sedimentation keeping it from returning to marine waters. Coral reefs protect mangroves from strong waves; thus, each benefits the other.

It’s time for another stop in the ocean; in this area, the reef landscape is dominated by Fire Corals, Branched Finger Corals, Boulder Star Corals, Boulder Brain Corals, and sea sponges in various shapes, sizes, and colors. This underwater “garden” is home to hundreds of species of fish and other fascinating creatures.

Photo: Striped parrotfishes (Scarus iseri) & Boulder Brain Coral
Photo: Striped parrotfishes (Scarus iseri) & Boulder Brain Coral

Without much difficulty, very close to the surface, you can see Blue-headed Wrasse, Yellowtail Damselfish, Slippery Dick, Great Barracuda, Four-eye Butterflyfish, Blue Tang Surgeonfish, Stoplight Parrotfish, and several others. Delving a little deeper, it is possible to see crabs, lobsters, and with luck, rays, and even sharks and octopuses.

Yellow Stingray (Urolophus jamaicencis)
Yellow Stingray (Urolophus jamaicencis)

In terms of biodiversity, coral reefs worldwide are comparable to tropical forests due to the large number of species they contain. In just 0.1% of the ocean’s surface, they have about 25% of all marine species.

The Bocas del Toro area has more than 280 species of corals and jellyfish, 220 species of fish, and hundreds of other marine animals, such as worms, clams, snails, crustaceans, and echinoderms.

In a few snorkels around Tranquilo Bay, it is possible to observe around 40 to 50 species of fish and many other organisms of this marine microcosm. So, make sure you take this tour and dare to peek into the Caribbean waters. With the help of a simple mask and a snorkel, you will be able to discover a hidden world full of surprises.

Foureye Butterflyfish x2 (Chaetodon capistratus) & Striped parrotfish x2 (Scarus iseri)
Foureye Butterflyfish x2 (Chaetodon capistratus) & Striped parrotfish x2 (Scarus iseri)

Join Us For An Interesting Night Hike In Bocas

The forest becomes very noisy at twilight; it’s time for the cicadas to gather, signifying that nightfall is almost here.

Valiant’s Frog by Roger Morales

As we dine, reveling in the culinary delights of Panama, we realize that we are not the only species present. A rodent with huge eyes and a captivating gaze catches our attention on the main building’s balcony. A small Wooly Opossum enjoys bananas placed on the bird feeders. How lucky we were! Having the animal close enough to photograph is a real privilege. It is one of several regular visitors to the feeders at night. Other species may appear at any time, such as the Great Four-eyed Opossum, fruit bats, and even night monkeys.

Anxious to start our nocturnal adventure, we finish with dinner. As soon as we turn on the flashlights, we notice movements in the Hagua tree in front of the dining room. A family of Crab-eating Raccoons is eating the fruits of the Genipa. We hadn’t even started the tour, and we had already seen two species of mammals!

We stroll towards the mangrove. Once inside the wetlands, we observe various crabs, spiders, and grasshoppers among the leaves of the red mangrove. This red mangrove extends to the seashore. We can also see needlefish, gobies, and a yellow stingray in the ocean, resting at the bottom near a coral reef. On the way back from the main dock, we hear strange noises – almost as if they were explosions. These are made by Pistol Shrimps. This species lives underwater and in mud, yet we can listen to their “explosions,” which they make by expelling bubbles from their pincers at high speed. These explosions manage to stun their prey so that the shrimp may capture them.

We continue with the search for nocturnal animals. Without going too far, we find a snake resting on the leaf of a palm tree, waiting for its prey. It is a Brown Vine Snake, harmless to us, so we can approach it quietly to observe it better and take some pictures. Its extended length is surprising in relation to its slender body.

Photo by Hugo Santa Cruz

During the walk, we hear different sounds, some of them belonging to frogs and others to insects. We follow one sound. After several minutes of searching, we locate a tiny Caribbean Dink Frog. This frog is about the size of the guide’s thumbnail. Who would have thought a tiny creature could emit such a loud sound? We see several amphibians and reptiles along the way: a Green Climbing Toad, a Talamanca Rocket Frog, and a Savage’s Bull Frog, as well as a Striped Basilisk, a Smooth Helmeted Iguana, and some anoles.

Photo by Hugo Santa Cruz

We hear soft movements above our heads during the thorough search for amphibians and reptiles; these aerial sounds cannot indicate anything else… a two-toed sloth! Wow, we didn’t expect that; so our attention immediately went to the forest canopy to see this beautiful nocturnal animal on the move.

Two Toed Sloth by Miguel Ibarra

On the way back to our cabins, we hear the Mottled Owl; but we can’t see it. That’s okay. Now we have an excellent excuse to do another night hike tomorrow. Maybe we can find the nocturnal monkeys?