About Jim

Owner/Operator at Tranquilo Bay Eco Adventure Lodge

Birding with the Experts

Panama Birding

I never get tired of birding my home patch with an expert, I also happen to be very lucky in terms of where that is.  The Western Caribbean Slope of Panama happens to be home and the wildness of this area is starting to attract some of the best Neotropical bird specialists.  When you’re in the field with someone highly experienced, they consistently see and point out things that my eye passes over as normal.  Sometimes, in an area that I bird regularly, I find myself unconsciously looking over places that don’t normally hold birds.  Or only checking common birds at a glance that are possibly similar but rare birds and should all be checked.  That Nicaraguan Seed-Finch might be on the same perch as last week, but maybe not.  A fresh set of well-seasoned eyes, with a broad range of experience, is a great way to make new discoveries in your own backyard.

On our recent birding tours in Panama, we have added several new species to our list for the Western Caribbean Slope.  On almost all counts, a visiting expert assisted in identification or in some cases by spotting the bird.  As a local guide, I am constantly looking for what should be there, or what has been there before, but not always for the unusual.  It can be easy to make a bad identification when your mind is thinking of what is common for the area.  We have seen hundreds of Groove-billed Anis but only listed Smooth-billed once or twice.  According to distribution, the Smooth-billed shouldn’t be here, but now that we know they are, we should check every Ani.  Someone who has never birded the area might check that upper mandible without even thinking about it.  Fresh eyes in a new birding hotspot don’t know what to expect and are often looking for a surprise as their mind is set for the unknown.

Neotropic Cormorants are a very common bird in Bocas del Toro, Panama, but we had never listed Anhinga.  So when Jim Dazenbaker of Cheesemans’ Ecology Safaris called out, “Anhinga” on a recent birding tour, I was sure he meant Neotropic Cormorant.  I looked at Jim and he had his binoculars pointed straight up in the sky, when I looked up, there it was soaring beautifully overhead.  Thanks Jimbo, new one for the Tranquilo Bay bird list.  Jim found the Anhinga while scanning soaring Vultures, just like we all should.  Just last week Jeri Langham, while leading a Panama birding tour for Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, (VENT) asked our driver to pull over while we were in the Talamanca highlands.  We hear White-throated Crake almost everyday all over the Western Caribbean Slope of Panama, but this one sounded a little different to Jeri and Natalia.  As he checked his list for possible Crakes at that distribution and altitude, there were only a couple of choices.  Jeri chose to play a recording of Gray-breasted Crake, not only was it a match for what they both heard, but then the bird started responding.  We never saw that bird, but thanks to Jeri’s astute knowledge of birdcalls, we now know where to find Gray-breasted Crake in our area.

As a local guide, I tend to learn most of the birds calls and songs from experience gained during my time in the field.  Hearing the bird and then locating and studying it, locks it into your brain like looking up a word in the dictionary.  You don’t always get it on the first time, but sometimes you do.  Most of the time if I haven’t seen the bird in the field, or been introduced to the call by an expert, I am not familiar with it.  Really good Neotropical birding specialists study birdcalls because it is one of the most affective ways to find birds.

We recently added Black-capped Pygmy-Tyrant to our list thanks to the incredible ear of leader Lena Senko with Field Guides.  To me the call was completely inaudible and after 25 minutes of extensively scanning an area just under the top of the canopy, we finally found that little ping pong ball.  Keith Hansen helped us rack up Northern Parula for our list.  I wouldn’t have even known what I was seeing because they are not supposed to be this far south, but it was something normal for him.  Being in a new area, where he had never birded before, Keith was scanning those trees for anything and everything.

With the opportunity to bird with so many great birders, my skills have improved drastically, however, the most important lessons that I have taken away from these experiences are strictly fundamental.  We should always be expecting the unexpected, even when the area is as familiar to you as your own backyard.  Furthermore, we need to study the field marks, songs and calls of birds that don’t commonly visit our area or possible vagrants that have visited on rare occasions past.  Not only will this make you a better birder, but furthermore, you might just add that missing rarity to your yard and life lists.

Surfing Bocas del Toro

Haynes Carstens Surfing

When the waves come to Bocas Del Toro, Panama, it’s time to surf.  December through mid-April bring the biggest swells of the year to the Caribbean followed by summer swells in July and August.  Bocas has many different types of waves from fast peeling reef breaks, to big hollow beach breaks.  On almost any swell we can find a good wave that will challenge any level of surfer.

Isla Carenero is a world-class point break that shouldn’t be passed up while Bluff Beach and Red Frog Beach are great shore breaks.  The variety of waves in Bocas del Toro make it perfect for your family surf vacation in Panama.  Tranquilo Bay has a large quiver of short and long boards, foam tops, body boards, kayaks and stand-up paddle boards to suit any style of surfing.

Air Panama flies surfboards on domestic flights throughout Panama for a very reasonable charge.  So don’t forget surfing Bocas del Toro while planning your next family vacation to Panama.

Spring 2014

Panama Vacation

I can’t believe how fast this year is passing; February just seemed to vaporize.  March will begin with Spring Break and many family adventures here at Tranquilo Bay and I’m sure everyone coming will be happy to escape this years harsh winter in the north.  Some of our family and friends will be joining us here in Bocas del Toro for fishing, kayaking, snorkeling, hiking, birding, wildlife and beaches.

The average temperature on Isla Bastimentos during March is 86 degrees in the daytime and 73 degrees at night, unbelievably comfortable for all winter migrants.  As for snorkeling, no wetsuits needed, the Caribbean surrounds you with a perfect 80 degrees and brilliantly colored tropical fishes swimming amongst the lush coral gardens.

So……Put down the snow shovel, dust off your hiking boots and bathing suits and get down here to Bocas del Toro, Panama.  Our naturalist guides are all set to take you on an incredible exploration of Western Panama’s rainforest’s, Caribbean reefs and beaches.

Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival 2014

In Late January, Tranquilo Bay Eco-Adventure Lodge had the incredible opportunity to attend the 17th annual Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival in beautiful Titusville, Florida.  For Tranquilo Bay the festival was an astounding success, we will definitely be returning for SCBWF 2015.  We really appreciate Neta Harris for helping us find an opening and all the hard-working volunteers that made this festival very special.

We were able to network with many key vendors and industry specialists in the birding, wildlife, and naturalist niches.  I had a blast trying out all the incredible optics from proven companies like, Leica, Zeiss, Nikon, Eagle Optics, and Swarovski to name a few.  What fun, all the optics booths were lined up with Jonathan Wood’s “Raptor Project” which made for great test-driving of all the latest spotting scopes and binoculars.

The talks and seminars conducted by the best experts in the birding and wildlife world were both fun and informative.

We met so many nice people who came by our booth with a luminous curiosity about Panama, Tranquilo Bay, and the Western Caribbean Slope.  It was wonderful to share the videos, pictures, and experiences that our local naturalist guides have everyday birding and wildlife watching here in Bocas del Toro, Panama.

Panama was well represented at the Space Coast Festival, which I feel made us look strong as a birding, wildlife and nature destination.  Our friends Jeri and Linda Harrison represented the outstanding group of properties located throughout Panama, The Canopy Tower Family.  Many of the best nature tour companies were there such as Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, Bird Quest and Cheepers Birding, all with several well-planned and proven Panama birding tours.

Panama is really growing fast as a birding destination.  New areas like the Darien and Western Caribbean Slope are opening up to birders and constantly proving to be richer in diversity than previously believed.  We just hope that the bird watchers are watching Panama.

Thanks again to everyone from the 2014 Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival, we are already looking forward to seeing you next year.

Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival

In the beginning of November 2013, Tranquilo Bay attended the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival in Harlingen, Texas.  This was the first birding festival we had ever attended and man were we surprised.  I didn’t know what to expect, so I took my old friend David Moseley along for the ride.  David is both a marketing expert and seasoned trade show guru who better to show me the ropes.

Bird Watching Panama

During the festival we met so many nice folks, from industry experts exhibiting at the show, to birding hobbyist looking for a new experience. It was really surprising how many had traveled such a long distance for the festival.  I think we met more people from Michigan than from Texas.  You really start to get a sense that some of these folks migrate with the birds all year.

Checking out all the new toys was awesome.  Since I’m somewhat of an optic freak, I felt like a kid in the candy store.  David and I both updated our field guide collections with many incredible books.  The Raptor show was amazing and we even got to help find a Peregrine Falcon that went AWOL, thanks to Mike at Nikon and his amazing compact travel scope.  I fell in love with about 10 new destinations that are now on my bucket list and I am still saddened by the artwork I couldn’t bring home.  Maybe next year…

The field trips organized by the festival and guided by the local and visiting talent were fantastic.  David and I went to the King Ranch and saw many amazing birds including our targets, Sprague’s Pipit and walk away scope views of the Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl.  Not only that, but the mammals were amazing too.  We saw Bobcat, Coyote, White-tailed Deer, Impala and Nilgai.  When we went to Lloyd Bentsen State Park, the Green Jays, Sandhill Cranes, Chachalacas, Osprey and Vermilion Flycatcher stole the show.  The guides were amazing making everyone comfortable and handled the large groups with ease.  The history lessons along the way were also well received.

The event was very professional and went off without a hitch; they even seemed to alert “everyone” attending the show that a Green Kingfisher had shown up nearby.  You can imagine the buzz that created being only the second known sighting in the U.S.  Our hats are off to the board members and volunteers that make this thing happen every year.  Tranquilo Bay will definitely be returning next year and we hope to see you there.

Fall: The Best Season

In Bocas del Toro, Panama, fall on the Western Caribbean Slope is generally our best weather of the year.  We don’t get the same number of guests as in the high season, but the ones that are here did their homework.  Enthusiasts of all different types use this time of year (Sept/Oct) to maximize their opportunities at Tranquilo Bay Eco Adventure Lodge.

Birding Panama

Birdwatchers come for the fall bird migration and beautiful weather conditions.  The volume of raptors in huge kettles over the Caribbean coastline and islands is a marvelous spectacle.  Seven hundred and thirty thousand raptors were counted just a couple of days ago.  They were followed by the Warblers, Tanagers, Orioles, and so many other exquisitely painted flying visitors.  The birds you can photograph from the canopy observation tower alone make this time of year worth the trip.

Panama Bird Watching

Wildlife Panama

Wildlife photographers come for the light and clarity.  Photographing wildlife in the Neotropics can be difficult at any time of year, but September/October bring plenty of sun and lower humidity creating stunning sun-drops beneath the canopy and clear landscapes.

Snorkeling Bocas del Toro

Snorkeling and diving conditions in the Caribbean Sea are at their peak; the favorable weather translates to calm water.  The wave action at other times of the year can affect visibility.  Not that those conditions are bad, they’re just not Bocas’ best.  Just wait until you feast your eyes on the diversity of corals and tropical fishes that light up the water with a rainbow of color here in Bocas del Toro.

Fishing Panama

Another great reason to come at this time of year is for the fishing.  Wade fishing conditions are perfect for Snook and Jack Crevalle.  Because the sea is so calm, there are rarely waves at river mouths.  The fish congregate into smaller target areas because the natural current patterns are not disrupted by rough conditions.  The rip lines are easy to find and with fewer waves, much easier to access while wading.

While offshore fishing in September and October, the typically flat seas are a dream.  School size Yellow-fin and Black-fin tuna bring plenty of action on light tackle.  Big Wahoo are the best offshore prize while fishing in Bocas del Toro, Panama, with 75 pound Wahoo taken regularly during the fall season.  This is also the best time of year to see a Whale Shark in western Panama.

Kayaking Panama

Oh, I almost forgot, all the reasons mentioned above to vacation in Bocas del Toro during the fall, also make it a great time of year for sea kayaking.

See you next fall.

Volume, Variety and Vagrants

While bird watching in Panama, just a few weeks ago, we took a group to the mouth of the Chanquinola River, where we often go birding for shorebirds.  What happened was one of those days I could never forget, my best day ever for this particular location.  Our good friend Jeri M. Langham leads “Bocas del Toro Archipelago” in the spring and fall for Victor Emanuel Nature Tours or VENT, and his fall 2013 participants were treated to many incredible sights in many different habitats.  I am sure their experience on this particular day was a highlight for many.

As we left the Soropta Canal and entered the river, it was clear that this was no usual day. Birds were everywhere flying, swimming and scurrying on the shore.  The river was a little low and running clean, without too much current.  In the center of the river a shallow bar had formed setting up a timber and grass matt which was the perfect habitat for many species to congregate.  We enjoyed beautiful looks at Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, Blue-winged Teal, five species of herons/egrets, and best of all, one of the participants spotted a Wilson’s Phalarope, a species not shown on the field guide maps to occur in this area of Panama.  He even got great picture of it, don’t you just love good evidence.  After a short lunch, while floating in the river being buzzed by a Ringed Kingfisher, we got out on the beach to walk the shoreline.  We brought our scopes, but we didn’t need them, the black sand beach seemed to be moving there were so many shorebirds.  Just in front of us there were dozens of Ruddy Turnstones, Black-necked Stilts, Black-bellied Plovers and Sanderlings.  Collared Plover was a standout, but we also had Semipalmated and Wilson’s plovers.  Across the cut we saw large flocks of Brown Pelicans and Terns diving on a rip line, so we decided to cross the river and check the action on the other side.  What we found was a complete shorebird blowout.  There was some kind of very small krill being washed up on the shore and dispersed in the beached sea grasses.  All the birds were going crazy with the little morsels.  As we walked down the shore, the birds were constantly welling up in a swarm 30-feet in front us and then falling just behind, seeming more inconvenienced than concerned.  In addition to the shorebirds mentioned, we were able to walk up to Least, Semipalmated, Spotted and Western sandpipers, Sanderlings, Lesser and Greater yellowlegs, and many Short-billed Dowitchers.  One participant found and photographed a Pectoral Sandpiper (also not shown to occur in this area).  We also enjoyed walk-away scope views of dozens of Lesser Nighthawks perched on logs and we identified Laughing and Franklin’s gulls along with Gull-billed, Black, Sandwich and Royal terns.  There were also Whimbrels and lots of Willets, “simply a shorebird extravaganza,” as Jeri put it.  To top it all off, as we left the river mouth and went offshore, we found a Red-billed Tropicbird swimming in the Caribbean.

I have seen many unbelievable things in nature and often recall those special moments when needed.  Sometimes all you need to remember of your time in the field is that one special thing, large aggregations of the same species, the outlandish number of species that you saw or just that one bird that didn’t read the field guide.  It’s not often you get volume, variety and vagrants all at the same time, but if you ever do, I’m sure it won’t be soon forgotten.

Birdwatching Panama

The conditions couldn’t have been better for my best day ever of shore birding in Panama.

Panama Birdwatching

Shorebirds covered the beach gorging on some small washed up form of krill. Photo by Jennifer Green.

Birding Panama

Lone Red-billed tropic bird taking a swim in the Caribbean, Bocas del Toro, Panama. The first of many we saw later that day, but that is another story. Photo by Jennifer Green.

Canopy Observation Tower

Tranquilo Bay’s new canopy tower is an outstanding place to observe many birds, mammals, reptiles, and butterflies living high above the forest floor in Bocas del Toro, Panama.  The rainforest trail system here at Tranquilo Bay is very productive in terms of wildlife sightings, but you might find yourself looking up all the time.  That’s because in the tropical rainforest everything, it seems, is in competition for light.  There are some very specialized flora and fauna living in the upper levels of the forest canopy.  They ruthlessly creep, crawl, climb, scurry, fly and flutter until they reach the top.  When you ascend the tower, emerging through the canopy, your eyes are treated to an unobstructed view of a tropical rainforests most desirable real estate.  The views are absolutely incredible and the wildlife seems to be undisturbed by your presence, you are not a threat.  That makes wildlife watching much easier for many different reasons.  First, there is plenty of light above the canopy making photography and binocular use a dream.  All those fancy optics you paid for actually get to do their best work.  Furthermore, your subjects seem to be more cooperative or content.  On the ground, everything is always moving away, or gone before you pass through if you aren’t quiet, which is hard to do in groups.  Above the canopy birds, mammals, and reptiles are foraging on tree top seeds and flowers or soaking up the sun for a daily dose of warm blood.  They stay in the same areas for longer periods of time thus giving you a better chance for a great view.  What’s more important is that the animals moved in to see you because in the tower you are not stirring up leaves, stepping on sticks or moving around making a lot of noise.  Since you are not disturbing anyone, you are able to observe natural wildlife behavior and daily habits.  The combination of good light and less movement of the subject make Tranquilo Bay’s canopy observation tower an excellent place to study your field marks or take that wildlife photo of a lifetime.

Birding Group at Tranquilo Bay

Bocas Canopy Tower

From the tower, eye-level views of the canopy help visitors see many birds, mammals and reptiles that are often hard to find from the trail.

Panama Bird Watching

A great place for birding groups and individual bird watchers to hone their tropical identification skills. Birds high on perch above the canopy can be clearly observed while locked in the scope.



Fall Raptor Migration – Bocas del Toro, Panama

The fall migration is heating up right now with new groups of Raptors showing up everyday.  Swallow-tailed and Plumbeous kites were the first to arrive in Bocas del Toro this year, forming beautiful kettles over the Western Caribbean Slope of Panama.  Large numbers of Barn Swallows and Lesser Nighthawks have also been drifting through for their long winter vacation.  A few Blackburnian and Canada warblers got here early with more to soon follow.  We need some rain down here in the tropics and I am sure hoping the rest of our feathered friends that are on their way bring some of the wet stuff with them.

Birding Panama

Bird Watching Panama

Photos by Jennifer G