About Ramon

Spanish biologist guide at Tranquilo Bay Eco Adventure Lodge

Bocas del Toro Orchids

In Panama extraordinary biodiversity is not a secret. It´s a privileged location on the Earth. It is in a tropical area, joining two formidable masses of land (North and South America) and separating the Atlantic and Pacific oceans at the same time.

But these facts are not the only reason, its topography, result of the dramatic geological events that lead to its formation, created so many micro-habitats.

From the Pacific and Atlantic shore to the summit of Volcan Baru at 11,398 feet above sea level (3374 meters) many micro-climates occur.   They all hold many different forms of life for such a small area of the world.

So, what do you think it happens to the most numerous family in the Plantae Kingdom … the orchids? Well, of the more than 20,000 species that exist in the world, Panama hosts 1,200 of them.   Bocas del Toro as a province holds it´s share!

Here are some pictures of common orchids that surround us:

Bocas del Toro Orchid

Orchid Panama

Orchid Plant Panama

Blue-winged Warbler

Birding Panama

One of the times I went birding on Snyder´s Canal last year I was lucky enough to have Jan Axel Cubilla as a birding partner.  We birded under intermittent rain through the morning and we reached the Changuinola river mouth, trying to see the shorebirds that cross this area during migration.

After enjoying some Black-bellied Plover, Ruddy Turnstones, collared plovers, sanderlings, and many more we were heading back to the boat when, suddenly, a movement in the bushes that cover the upper part of the beach, caught our attention. The second I focused my binoculars on the bird that was causing that movement I heard Jan Axel saying excitedly, “It is a Blue-winged Warbler.”  There it was, the bright yellow, the white wing bars and the unmistakable black line over the eye.   A very handsome male was showing himself while searching around the bushes for his next meal.

Jan Axel was surprised by this observation of the Blue-winged Warbler because every time that he has found the bird it was in the canopy of a closed forest. This time it was in an open space, one meter (three feet) over the ground working some bushes. I guess after a while, we all know that the “strange” seems to be the norm if we talk about birds’ behaviour. We probably should just thank this beauty for being there, enjoy the moment, and, if possible, take a picture.

We shared a great birding day at the canal. This lifer, for me, made it even greater.


Snorkeling PanamaIf we are planning on discovering Bocas del Toro’s underwater treasures, there is one important thing that has to be always on our minds … All the crazy shapes with strange textures and designs, in the brightest colors surrounding us while snorkeling, are life forms that belong to one of the most intricate and fragile ecosystems over the face of the Earth …. So, we have to be absolutely careful in our movements, and avoid touching anything while we are in the water.

If you haven’t ever experienced snorkeling, first of all … do not worry.  It is a very exciting experience and you can make it even smoother, by using some tricks.   At Tranquilo Bay our solution to make it easier is using a neoprene life jacket, as it will help to keep you afloat comfortably.  By not having to struggle to keep yourself afloat it allows you to calmly focus on enjoying the colorful fishes and coral in front of your mask.

Bocas del Toro Snorkeling

On top of using jackets, we also have the best grounds upon which to practice.   Tranquilo Bay’s dock is located in waters where the coral is deep enough so that beginners can enter the amazing world of snorkeling in a safe and instantly rewarding way.

Bocas del Toro reefs are often shallow. At a “flipper distance” from the surface of the water where we are floating may be home to the reef, but there will be always an edge where we can safely enjoy the underwater world. So, search for your comfortable depth on the edge of the shallow reef.

Biodiversity Temple SnorkelingTo fully enjoy the reef systems, I would like to suggest that snorkeling is a stress less pleasure.  It requires very gentle movements, very soft fin strokes, open eyes, and a lot of curiosity and patience to search with your eyes in the cracks and holes where many creatures hide.   If you move like a sloth, your chances of finding the most amazing creatures that inhabit the reef will increase immensely.   You might have a chance encounter between the different actors that inhabit these biodiversity temples (otherwise known as the Bocatoranian Reefs).


The importance of the word “almost”

Birding PanamaWhen arriving at Tranquilo Bay, each person has their own expectations on what kind of wildlife they can find here – which species of mammals, birds, reptiles.  And, as you know, anything is guaranteed when we are talking about wildlife viewing, but there are some particular species that you can find all year round, no matter if a certain plant is fruiting or flowering, if we are in a dry or a rainy pattern, … they are “almost” always (you never say always with wildlife) here.

Hummingbird Watching Panama

Panama BirdwatchingOne such species is the Crowned Woodnymph (formerly known as Violet-crowned Woodnymph, Thalurania colombica) which can be found “almost” anywhere on Tranquilo Bay’s grounds, but there is one particular area that they really seem to like and you can find them “almost” daily.

Baths of Tranquilo BayIf you have ever been to Tranquilo Bay, you probably have already figured out the place.  The “hummingbirds’ creek,” a portion of a creek in the forest that they like to use to cool down by bathing in it.  It is only a little stretch of the creek that they use, which allows us to sit on benches, waiting comfortably for their explosions of activity.

Hummingbirds PanamaMale and female Crowned Woodnymph, Purple-crowned Fairy and Striped-throated Hermit bathe throughout the year in those waters.  Other visitors will show up from time to time like White-necked Jacobin, Band-tailed Barbthroat and the omnipresent Rufous-tailed Hummingbird and many other birds out of the Hummingbird group. “Almost” every person that witness this behavior, never forgets how graceful they are suspended over the water, submerging their whole body in a glimpse, repeatedly, dipping themselves in the calm water of this section of what we call the ” The Baths of Tranquilo Bay.”


Panama’s Interesting Natural History

View of Volcan Baru from BocasGeologically, Central America is one of the most complicated places on the Earth. A place where the fundamental forces at work on Earth over the last 15 million years created a land bridge that changed the world.

This new bridge not only connected the Northern and Southern terrestrial biota but changed the global oceanic circulation separating Pacific from Atlantic oceans which produced dramatic changes in weather patterns and oceanic conditions on both sides. The separation of the two oceans provoked the appearance of the Gulf Stream which warms the East Coast of North America and the Western European coasts, resulting in precipitation increases and intensification of the northern hemisphere glaciation.

This land bridge, that is also a separation wall between two oceans, happened progressively over the last fifteen-million years. As such it allowed changes that normally happen after big catastrophic events. The movement of species through the new land-bridge is known as “Great America Biotic exchange”. This exchange occurred in waves.

Species Migration across PanamaThe first migration wave happened eight-million years ago and included raccoons and sloths which where able to hop and swim from island to island within the existing island chain. Ocean foraminifera fossil data indicates a certain degree of connectivity in oceans until 3.1 million years ago.   Three-million years ago is the moment, when abundant emigrant remains are found on both sides which is considered as evidence of a continuous land bridge. Dozens of families and several dozen genera passed in both directions.

A massive migration was led by grazers in large groups (horses and llamas from North America and ground sloths from South America) which had a heavy impact on the landscape. They were followed by carnivores … at least 6 families of North American carnivores spread South with catastrophic impact on native southern grazers (since they had never met such efficient hunters).

Natural History Species MigrationOne of the last species to arrive North from the south is the opossum that reached Florida 1 million years ago.

The piece of land we now call Panama, was the last part closing the bridge that joined the two big land masses and at the same time separating the Atlantic from the Pacific Ocean forever. This makes this particular spot on Earth one of the most interesting places to study speciation, migration patterns, adaptation processes, competition, and extinction. We could say that Panama is an open air natural evolution laboratory.

Bird Island – an all-time top ten

Something that it repeats in time, through the years and with an established pattern that joins us around an idea, can be called a tradition. On every VENT (Victor Emanuel Nature Tours) tour group that comes to visit us at Tranquilo Bay, the participants are asked by Tour Leader (and dear friend) Jeri Langham, to make a TOP TEN list of their experiences during the week-long tour.  Anything goes on the top ten list: a person, situation, color, smell or anything that calls our attention.

Panama Bird WatchingThrough the years I have seen and heard many top ten experiences. We have had many good moments to choose from, but there is one experience that is always highlighted is the visit to Bird Island (Swan´s Cay or Isla Pájaro).

This magical place is one of the few “all-time top ten” experiences such that is a traditional top ten experience. It is not hard to understand why it is so special, but it is really hard to explain the experience with words.

Birding by Boat

When you are traveling in the boat in front of the north point of Isla Colón you begin to recognize the massive “Swan with a submerged head” shape rock in the middle of the ocean. It is hard to believe that it could survive the exposure to the open ocean’s strength when other rocks around, like the “Sail Rock” are loosing their fight against time and elements.

Birdwatching Panama As you get closer, you see some white dots start circling around the jungle rock. Then as you are approaching closer still, the white specs become a white bird with an extraordinary long tail, the Red-billed Tropicbird (Phaethon aethereus). This rock has the only-known nesting colony in Panama.

Magnificent Frigatebird But that is not the only neighbor on the rock. Tropicbirds share the island with Brown boobies ( Sula leucogaster), Magnificent Frigatbirds ( Fregata magnificens), Pale-vented Pigeons (Patagioenas cayennensis ), and many other visitors like Kingfishers, Common Black Hawk (Beteogallus anthracinus), Green Heron (Butorides virescens).

Panama Birding

Mentioning their names cannot bring to your mind the spectacular display of sounds, jiggling feathers, interactions or just, the breeze of the ocean cooling you down while witnessing the natural piece of art that Bird Island is.

And that is why, we all share our Bird Island memories as some of the most precious souvenirs from Bocas del Toro.

Three-wattled Bellbird and Stub-tailed Spadebill

Two of the most interesting species of birds that inhabit Tranquilo Bay´s trails, have been very active lately, during the past month almost every time I go to the trail, I got to see them or, at least, I heard them calling. I am talking about the Three-wattled Bellbird (Procnias tricarunculata) and the Stub-tailed Spadebill (Platyrinchus cancrominus).

Birding Panama

The unmistakable sound of the Three-wattled Bellbird surrounding you, almost “hitting” you, happens only part of the year because during the breeding season (March- mid August) they are on higher ground (2300 -7000 feet). L.S. Crandall gives this explanation of the calling behavior, which I consider very precise (Zoologica, 1948, pp.113-114,pl.1) “The mouth is open widely, until the lower mandible approximates a right angle to the upper … the body is then pumped rapidly up and down for about five seconds. This movement then ceases and with the body, legs and wings rigid, as violent convulsion of the throat and neck is followed by the sharp metallic bell.”

Three-wattled Bellbird Once you hear the sound, it is unforgettable, and the first thought is always the same … How does it make it? followed by .. Where is it? Because they like to be in open perches in the canopy so they are normally under cover of leaves if you look up from the bottom of the trees. Now it is a very good time to get delighted by their call and their beauty.

Panama Birdwatching In the case of the Stub-tailed Spadebill, it is a year round neighbor in the forested islands of Bocas del Toro Archipelago, and only here … because this species is subplanted by the Golden-crowned Spadebill in Bocas del Toro mainland.

Even living here within the Tranquilo Bay forest all year-long, he is a very secretive bird, you can hear them but the call doesn’t always repeat, it is not the case now because they are very active, calling and playing around. You can see these “little balls” hopping around one after the other, providing also a great opportunity to make some good photographic shots.

Birding at Tranquilo Bay

Miconia minutiflora

Miconia minutiflora. The “super plant” that feeds the birds.
Miconia with Red Capped Manakin

If you want the birds to be attracted to your backyard, the best strategy to accomplish your desires would be planting native plant species, that produce flowers and fruits that your resident birds like to eat.

At Tranquilo Bay, a long time ago, we realized that this was the best way to attract birds and butterflies to our gardens. There was one tree that, immediately, caught our attention because of its fruit production. This “super plant” was covered in fruit, twice a year, during migration time. So many different bird species decorate its branches during the fruiting period, that we felt it was mandatory to plant more of this mysterious tree around, and we did.
Birding Panama

The research to find information about the “super plant” was not the easiest and, the first thing we found was that it belonged to the Melastomatacea family, then its genus, miconia sp, and finally we got to the “name and surname”, the specie name was Miconia minutiflora.

The species M. minutiflora is due to their diminutes flowers, which flowers in a very interesting strategy that Genty in 1974 described as “the big bang flowering” strategy, where all the flowers from a branch will start flowering at the same time and for just 2 to 3 days. Every one of these small flowers will become one of the hundreds of fruits that will cover the branches tips.
Panama Wildlife

This native tree, about 15 feet tall, can be found from Mexico, through mesoamerica, Colombia, Venezuela, Surinam, French Guayana, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, North Brazil, Cuba and Trinidad. In Panama, it is reported for every province.

Giant “Blue-winged Helicopter”

Damselfly PanamaMegalopus caerulatus The Giant “Blue-winged Helicopter” Damselfly.

Bocatoranian forests are host of one of the largest Odonate (Dragonflies and Damselflies) in the world, for most of the body measurements, The Blue-winged Helicopter (Megalopus caerulatus).

They are common insects but, the encounters are always fortunate because of their behavior. They do not have a certain place where they like to congregate like many other damselflies do in creeks, ponds, … this giants of the order Odonata like to drift through the forest or settle in forest light gaps.

During their flight, the white and dark blue colored wing tips, and the reflections while moving them in flight, create a visual effect that causes the blades of a helicopter in the air. Visually it is an extraordinary and delicate show.

Panama Wildlife

Carlos Esquivel, Costa Rican entomologist, an expert in tropical odonates, says in his book “Dragonflies and Damselflies of Middle America and the Caribbean” (where you can find so much interesting information), that the colors of the male´s wings in flight, resemble the coloration of the Heliconius cydno that cohabit the same forests.  With the similitude in colors, there is no better example than to see a male Megalopus caerulatus (the Blue-winged Helicopter) reacting to the presence of a cydno longwing butterfly in their territory.  Cydno longwing butterfly is considered to be a foul tasting butterfly to insect-eating birds and they try to avoid them because of their unpleasant flavor.

Cydno longwing butterfly

Does this similarity give any advantage to the damselfly against an insect-eating bird? …. as it happens with some other South American Damselflies (to the polythorids) that also resemble foul-tasting butterflies?  There is so much to do to keep revealing the secrets that lay in plain sight with tropical biology.

Tranquilo Bay’s Firecrackers

The time for firecrackers at Tranquilo Bay is coming.

The Golden-collared Manakin males are starting now to prepare the courts, which are elliptical, or round, clearings in the leaf matter, on the ground of the forest, where they will practice and do their displays. Those will be the areas where they will face a battle with themselves, and between the members of the lek.

Panama Birding

The word lek could describe an aggregation of males that will perform a competitive display for the visitor females which will select their most suitable male to mate, depending on his coordination of movements or stillness, sounds and  appearance.

The courts are clean and clear, the pre-breeding season is coming to a close and, soon, all those firecracker sounds, made by clapping the wings that have modified feathers, will invade the surroundings of Tranquilo Bay.  This sound will become a part of the Original Tranquilo Bay sound track until June with some outliers in July.  It is the result of a very hard training course that the males had to “take” to meet the female’s high standards of quality performance. This strong female mating decision process (Females are the ones who decide) led the males to their elaborate mating display because they have to convince the female that they are the best option for her.

Manakin Lek Courtship

During breeding season, females will visit those leks and all the males will perform for her. She will compare and decide which male is for her.   When she chooses one, she will join the elected one in the court, following him in his display until he makes a flip and meets her on the same stick.  In just one or two seconds of contact he accomplishes his life’s purpose: transmitting his genes to the next generation.  At that time all the hours cleaning the forest floor and the endless hours of dance practice, suddenly, are completely worth it.

Birdwatching PanamaThe full cycle of competitive dancing will start again next season but let´s first enjoy this breeding season that it is about to come.  They have a lot of shows ahead to offer their females (and us) before we start thinking of next season.

We are ready for the showtime!