About Jeff Bouton

Raving bird & nature freak who has been fortunate enough to follow my passion for all things wild! Sales & Marketing Manager - Nature Observation USA at Kowa Sporting Optics

Seasonal rarities & new additions!

In preparation for my trip to Tranquilo Bay I’d been scouring bird lists & cross referencing eBird reports to see what species occurred there. Living on the gulf coast of South Florida and with over a dozen past visits to Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama and Ecuador, I knew there would be many familiar species. Ranging from common Florida “yardbirds” to species I’d only encountered once or twice, but I was pleasantly surprised by the large number of species listed that I’d never seen (Bocas del Toro region has a high incidence of regional endemism). Whether familiar or brand new species, I’d long since determined that every sighting and wildlife encounter always brings a chance for new discovery, and I was thrilled at the prospect of returning to the tropics after a few years away and refreshing my memories of these seldom seen species! 

In my research, I was not surprised to note comparatively few June eBird reports from the Bocas Del Toro region (June is likely the least birded month in most areas with the fewest reports). On a phone conversation, I’d told owner Jim Kimball that I was looking forward to birding during this comparatively unexplored season, hoping we might turn up some surprises and add some meaningful local sightings. Jim replied that he was equally excited to get out and do some exploring, mentioning that he had “feathered fiends” on the mainland he hadn’t seen in over a year. At that moment, I knew Jim and I would get along just fine. It also reminded me that the many wildlife guides and lodge owners in the tropics, had been locked down and struggling over the past 16 months as well.

As expected, Luis Gles (a professional bird guide & researcher from SE Florida) and I encountered an amazing assortment of tropical birds and wildlife over our first two full days at Tranquilo Bay. Some were “old friends” & some new acquaintances, but none of these had been truly unexpected sightings. On day three, we set off early making our way across glassy calm waters toward the “Snyder Canal”. The golden morning light reflected beautifully off the water as we sped along passing perched Frigatebirds and a lone Brown Noddy. Numerous Black Terns in non-breeding plumage were bounding along the protected channels between mangrove islands throughout, and Brown Boobies glided low over the water with their bills gleaming brilliantly in the morning sun. Sharp-eyed Luis picked out an extremely pale Parasitic Jaeger lifting off the water and flying a short distance before lighting again. 

(Over our all too short week here we would photo document three distinctly different individual Parasitic Jaegers and count dozens of Black Terns, leading me to assume these non-breeding birds over-summer in these rich tropical waters in their first years rather than risking arduous migrations until they were ready to breed.)

Our friendly guides Jim, Natalia & Ramon had educated us on the local wildlife species and had shown us loads of species that we had little to no experience with. However, when we motored into the broad, tidal expanses of the Changuinola River mouth this changed a bit as the birding took on a very familiar feel. As the wide river opened-up before us, we began scanning the many sand flats and grassy edges noting birds we knew well from our South Florida homes. Black-bellied Whistling Ducks and Royal Terns were abundant on the exposed sand bars and Ramon picked out a pair of locally uncommon Black Skimmers roosting among them. There were less than a dozen reports of this species locally in total and this was only a third summer report for the region.

While documenting this locally uncommon sighting, Natalia spotted a bird standing against the taller grasses behind. I recognized the bird’s unique shape and color immediately as a favorite from home, and nonchalantly stated, “Limpkin”. Apparently, this species had only been detected on a couple past Tranquilo Bay trips ever and this was a first summer report on eBird for the entire region, making the sighting even more significant. We continued idling upriver scanning the flats and adding more unseasonal bird sightings:  a distant, Black-necked Stilt was the first June eBird report for this species in the region, and we added over-summering Spotted Sandpiper and Sanderlings (again both first June reports for the province) as well as a second individual Limpkin… We were on a roll!

Our next sighting would prove our MOST significant though, when a floppy-winged raptor pumped lazily three times and glided low and slow over the grasses on broad, bowed wings landing on a low snag on the distant shore. Another familiar South Florida specialty, I immediately called this “Snail Kite”. For the only time on the trip, I found myself in the extremely unique position of having more experience with a bird than my local guides. Snail Kite was not only a new addition to the all-time TB bird species list, but it had never been recorded (at any season) from the province nor western Panama as a whole! Jim had already turned the boat around and we were speeding toward this rare bird to get some images for documentation. When we got closer the motor speed was reduced and Luis and I began digiscoping images of this still somewhat distant juvenile bird from the bow of the still drifting boat. 

With documentation shots obtained, we once again continued upriver toward our picnic site. All of these rare sightings were now delaying lunch! 😉 Along the way, we spied another Limpkin perched and a pair flying together over the grassy marshes. Perhaps not wholly unexpected given the numbers of snail-eating Limpkins we were seeing but we were surprised to note not one but 2 additional Snail Kites here as well! 

Even though these were not new or unfamiliar species for me, these Kites were absolutely our most significant local bird sightings of the trip, representing new additions to the list of local avifauna in this part of Panama! Elated from the extremely successful morning of birding, we pulled the boat to the bank and enjoyed a delicious shore lunch topped with freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies and celebratory libations. As we were finishing our meals, one of the Snail Kites (a lovely adult female) perched nearby with an Apple Snail in her talons, joining us for lunch. With beer & cookie still in hand, I grabbed my spotting scope and began getting some higher quality digiscoped images and videos from land. We all proceeded to get some marvelous images before the bird took off to search of more snails and we toasted our good fortune.  I lifted the remainder of my beer and nabbed another scrumptious, home-made cookie. “Salud”! Life is good. 

Snail Kite was one of two species added to the cumulative Tranquilo Bay bird list during our trip, on the day prior we discovered and digiscoped a rare Slate-colored Seedeater (a lifer for all present)!

Itching for an Adventure

Bocas del Toro Canopy Tower View
View from Tranquilo Bay’s Tower

For years, I’d heard nothing but great things about Tranquilo Bay Eco Adventure Lodge, so I was excited to finally have the opportunity to visit the lodge in person and explore this wild & undeveloped region for myself. I’d birded Panama’s canal zone numerous times, as well as the Darien Province in past trips, but this was my first visit to the western Caribbean slope of Panama. After fifteen months of lockdowns without any travel, I was itching for an adventure and the thought of visiting a tropical paradise teeming with spectacular birds & wildlife seemed the perfect solution really! My friend and colleague, Luis Gles, a professional bird guide & seasonal research biologist in Miami, was available and as eager to explore this new region of the tropics as I was. 

Flying to Panama
Luis and I heading to Panama

So, on June 16th we departed Miami on an early morning flight headed south. The prospect of international travel following the global pandemic had seemed quite intimidating and in my mind, I’d envisioned (and even dreaded) the prospect of massive delays brought about by new Covid travel protocols. However, when we arrived at the airport, I was surprised at how smooth the process was. At the ticket counter we had to present negative Covid-19 test results from within 48 hours of flight time (something I’d invested 20 minutes in 2 days prior) along with our passport at check in. Within moments, the ticketing agent had tagged my checked bag and placed it on the conveyor, and then handed back my passport, Covid test results and boarding pass. “Whew, that was easy”, I thought (but was certain the worst was yet to come). 

We reached the security checkpoint but once again, we breezed right through with no real change or delays. The only difference really were that new thermal body temperature scanners that had been added, and (as with all airports and flights) all had to wear masks, a minor inconvenience in the scheme of things honestly. At the gate, there were again no different protocols and the boarding process was smooth and we found ourselves in row by ourselves so even room to spread out a bit! 

Flight Map into Panama
Flight Map Florida to Panama

Ever cynical, I was certain the major hassle would surely occur when we landed then. The flight to Panama City (PTY) itself was smooth and easy, but I still exited the plane prepared again for the worst. However, once again my self-induced anxieties and expectations seemed all for naught. Upon exiting we encountered the ONLY extra step in typical flight, a second review of the negative Covid tests Numerous officials were lined up here though at long tables and there were no lines so it literally took me longer to retrieve the document from the front pouch of my carry on than it did to verify. Again the delay was maybe a full minute at most!

We cleared the rest of the customs process in Panama City with ease, and then were shuttled over to the regional airport where we hopped aboard the short, one hour Air Panama flight carrying us west over the extremely scenic Caribbean coastline of Panama. Before I even knew it, we’d landed in Bocas Del Toro, leaving the hustle & bustle of the big cities behind, and started birding immediately. It was just after 2 PM as we walked from the tarmac into the small terminal building excitedly calling off the common tropical species, “Blue-black Grassquit, TK (AKA Tropical Kingbird), Kiskadee, Melodious Blackbird, Gray-breasted Martin…”. There was even a favorite bird that feeds in the flooded ditch in my front yard, but one that (until that moment) I’d never seen in Panama, a Tricolored Heron! 

Luis Gles heading out to Tranquilo Bay Eco Adventure Lodge

Soon after, we were gliding across the glassy-calm, crystalline Caribbean waters toward Tranquilo Bay Eco Adventure Lodge with a drink in one hand & binoculars in the other. At that moment, the last of my self-induced anxieties and unwarranted, intimidating fears of international travel just melted away and I smiled to once again be in the American tropics!

Mangroves Bocas del Toro
Bocas del Toro Mangroves

Our guides were relaying local information as Magnificent Frigatebirds winged gracefully overhead, and Pale-vented Pigeons flashed rich magenta hues as they flew between mangrove islands. As a boat owner that gets to regularly cruise mangrove-lined backwaters in Florida, I still found this scenery breath-taking, so I could only imagine how wonderful this must seem for other that aren’t able regularly enjoy habitats like this. Before I could give it a second thought though, we pulled up to the Tranquilo Bay docks and were greeted by singing “Mangrove” Yellow Warblers and Bananquits as well as our  hosts, Jim & Renée Kimball who met us with wide smiles and gracious hospitality!

“Mangrove” Yellow Warbler