Dock Fishing, Tranquilo Style

Dock Fishing

While the majority of guests who stay with us here at Tranquilo Bay want to explore the surrounding forests, delve deep into dark bat caves or enjoy some serious snorkeling above our impressive coral reefs, we also happily invite those outdoorsy fishermen and women who come through now and again hoping to cast a line!

While the more serious tarpon fishing season includes a couple short seasons over the course of the year when the waters are calmest–a highly recommended time to come for ya’ll who dream of hooking these monumentally impressive, dinosaur-like fish–snapper, barracuda and jacks swim our calm, protected bay all year long.

Sometimes the there’s nothing better than the opportunity to jump in a kayak, either early in the morning or late afternoon when the sunlight is turning that beautiful late day sheen off the water, and drop a line, content to spend a couple hours in the peace that Tranquilo Bay offers.

Capitan Sanchez fillets a mutton snapper caught by a summer guest.

While the majority of fishing is catch and release, should you hook a good sized snapper or care to wrangle a barracuda off your line, the kitchen is happy to prepare a meal of it! One ambitious (and lucky!) guest got a mutton snapper right off the dock and was proud to share a bite with everyone in the dining room that evening!

Another perk is what fun this activity can be for our younger Tranquilo guests: we can easily get them set up and fishing off our service dock where the boats are kept. You’re almost always guaranteed to catch one of the smaller snappers hanging out under the dark safe nook the hanging boats provide. With mangrove crabs for bait, thanks to Captain Sanchez here, this mutton snapper was on the hook within seconds!

Fate to the winds: Fall Migration at Tranquilo

Fall is upon us again, as the birds from our temperate northern latitudes of United States and Canada fly south for the winter to spend the long months (and thus, the majority of the year) in the tropics. A combination of photoperiod, the tilt of the earth, genetic predisposition, temperature and food availability determines this period of mass departure.

Migration Birdwatching
Hooded Warbler, Florida, Fall 2019

After a short spring and summer packed with staking out new territories (or returning to ones claimed in previous years as is the case with various warblers that return to the same nesting territory year after year), the birds find a mate, build nests and raise the next generation of migratory birds. These hatch-year birds, upon fledging, join the southward-flowing river of migrant songbirds, waterfowl and raptors to wintering grounds they’ve never seen before, yet once occupied by their ancestors.

Eastern Kingbirds Birding Panama
Eastern Kingbirds pausing in the treetops off Tranquilo Bay’s deck. October 2019

The birds funnel down the vast continent of North America where they finished out the breeding season to the narrow stretch of Central America, some residing here for the winter while others continue to fly as far as South America.

Birding Migration
Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Maryland Fall 2019

So why would a bird care to make such a journey? Throwing its fate to the wind and relying on abundant yet sometimes uncertain resources that provide a bird’s fat stores to fuel the tiny little muscles that can project a tiny sprite across wide open seas, country borders and continental divides?

Well, a combination of factors: the lush tropics burgeon with fruits, seeds, and invertebrates that become unavailable up north after the fall harvest is over and the cold sets in. The plentiful supply of food in the tropical south allows for our temperate nesting birds to feed shoulder to shoulder with toucans, trogons, honeycreepers and others that make up the vast array of Central and South American species of the avian persuasion.

Fall Migration Panama
The tanagers are headed this way! Florida, Fall 2019

This is an exciting time, not just for birders but anyone interested in nature– it’s hard not to get drawn in by the wildly impressive spectacle of such a mass migration!

Have you noticed changes in the birds around your home? What’s it like where you life? Who stays and who goes?

Black Terns refueling at the mouth of the Changuinola along their journey south. Snyder/Changuinola Bay Excursion, Tranquilo Bay

Trials of Being a Baby Bird

It’s a new Rufito!

At the time of the photo, this bitty baby Rufous-tailed hummingbird had hatched ten days before and endures a tighter and tighter squeeze each and every day in that tiny nest as mother tirelessly feeds this immobile yet very hungry little chick.

Baby birds (not just hummingbirds) have a hard go of it, even before they’ve hatched out of that delicate, vulnerable eggshell. When it comes to nature, if your defenses are down (or non-existent, as is the case with most of our nestbound babies), there is no mercy should a predator happen by.

Stripe-throated Hermit nest

And there are many predators in the rainforest that consider an inhabited nest a free-for-all dinner plate! So what can baby birds do about it? Well, nothing. So instead, they must depend upon their parents to have evolved and obtained the necessary considerations and instincts required for where and how they build their nest.

And camoflage is KEY.

This nest, containing our impossibly adorable rufous-tailed hummingbird chick is made out of silky fibers from plants and spider webs and then plastered with bits of dead leaves and lichen to help the tiny cup nest from being detected among the branches by wandering eyes. Nevertheless, no matter how much effort is put in to the building of the nest and making it appear camouflaged, the immense importance of the nest *location* is also very key.

At this point, I’m almost convinced that if we humans can find a nest, then predators are seeing it too and that was practically confirmed as I watched a total of 5 hummingbird nests fail this year, some of which were hatchlings between a couple days old to more than a week. Prime predator for our defenseless little birds? Snakes. Another surprising predator we found were ants, which could reach some of the far spots on the branches that were too precarious for a serpent to reach.

Weather comes into play as well in the survival of an exposed chick, and with the occasional nighttime rains we’ve had of late. So we can only hope the momma hummer stays put and keeps that chick dry while it very slowly grows in those essential, water resisting, protective feathers!

Stripe-throated Hermit nestling

Baby hummingbirds hatch completely devoid of feathers and only a few wisps of down and thus are actually considered cold-blooded during this time, meaning they have no control of their body temperature which is thus subject to the surrounding conditions. If a hummingbird chick gets wet, it is unable to stabilize its body temperature and thus is in grave danger of dying without any protective insulation layer of feathers over their skin.

So baby hummers, and baby birds in general, have a lot at stake during the most vulnerable point in their lives. Should you come across a bird nest in your nature wanderings, it’s best to leave it be and let the parents do their job. Make sure you are far enough away that a worried parent bird can return without fear to carry out raising that precious little bit of life and carry on the next generation.

Rockin’ the “Green Season” at Tranquilo Bay

While people may call our green season, the low season, we’ve been busy here at Tranquilo Bay on the lush green island of Bastimentos surrounded by mangroves, rainforest, beach and the rich Caribbean Sea. 

Nothing really stops here at the lodge, even if there happens to be a lull in guests. In fact, this time of the year (we call it winter, here in the tropics) is the time of some of Tranquilo’s hardest, most intense work. Jay runs his team of wildly strong and tireless workers: our own Sanchez, Alvaro and Gustavo, our indigenous N’gobe muchachos who double as captain and triple as landscapers, builders and all around renaissance men. These are the same sweet guys who you’ll see on their knees in the sand, shoulder to shoulder with our youngster guests, helping dig holes and build sandcastles on any Zapatilla beach day.

Some of what they have been working on includes many projects around the grounds and one of which includes preparing a space, sifting, hauling and tamping tons of sand, and installing the 20-some thousand gallon bladder, which was a backbreaking achievement that will give us more rain catchment and put us in a good position for the next drought. Who do we have to thank? 

These guys! 

As far as the the rest of us, Everyone has gone on some pretty wonderful adventures, in some cases wanderings abroad because we use the low season to travel. Guides Ramon and Natalia spends a couple months traveling to see their families in Valencia, Spain and Medellin, Colombia. The Kimballs, (Jim, Renee, Tres and Boty) visited the states and their ol’ homeland Texas, road-tripping all over to see friends and family.

Luis of Quebrada Enrique

Together with the Violas (Jay, Scott and Patrick), back here at the lodge, we have gone on various adventures, including a reconnaissance excursion to a little-trodden section of trail owned and maintained by Luis, a local restaurant and landowner. Luis invited us and guided us onto his stunningly beautiful property. We had toucans and trogons peer at us from the greenery overhead and countless tiny, brilliant strawberry poison dart frogs hopped on the trail around us, yet another array of beautiful color morphs and patterns. Beautiful flowing marañon trees dropped their wispy, vibrant pink petals as ground decoration, a small bodied, large eyed ruddy tailed flycatcher wagged on a branch above us and even a rufous and green kingfisher fished in the same secret forest pond that we cooled off in. 

Hugo Santa Cruz, Lic. in Tourism and Protected Areas Management

Since going with the Kimballs before they left, we’ve been back to this new trail twice, the Violas and I along with intern hailing from Bolivia, Hugo Santa Cruz. We had a blast, as each visit we saw new and different wildlife. This is definitely going to be a new favorite to add to our array of off-site adventure excursions!

 

In addition to all that’s gone on, our “low season” has also resulted in about six weeks straight of visiting guests! We’ve had families (including my own parents and longtime family friends of the Kimballs, the Moseley’s who visit annually), birders, wildlife photographers and even a huge multi-family reunion that chose Tranquilo Bay for their special event. Some might think that since it’s so hot up north where it’s summertime now, it must be boiling down in the tropics, but we truly only endure a range of about five degrees difference in temperature year round! While we’ve had some rainy adventures (as is possible during anytime throughout the year), our gung-ho guests know that this beautiful rainforest would be nothing if not for the precious moisture that makes the lush greenery of beautiful Isla Bastimentos the true wildly productive and biodiverse rainforest that it is.

 

 

Be a Citizen Scientist!

Black-crowned Antshrike

Here at Tranquilo, you can hardly walk from your garden cabina to the lodge for breakfast without encountering something special, be it a beautifully detailed, work-of-art of a caterpillar or a black-crowned antshike beating a succulent grub into submission for easy ingestion. The multitude of life that exists on this island consisting of a mere 24 square miles is extraordinary and, as it carries on all around us, we love not just to observe it but document it as well!

Many of the birdwatchers that come to Tranquilo (and we here at Tranquilo as well) are what has come to be termed as “eBirders”..meaning we have the app, we make the lists and we submit the information.  

The app is called eBird and was developed by Cornell Lab of Ornithology in 2002. By contributing to eBird, we are adding information to a massive online database of bird checklists submitted by more than 420,000 eBirders from all over the world. By contributing a simple checklist of birds identified–say on a short hike or even sitting at your back window–all that’s needed is date, time and location and this information can be added to a database which birders contribute to daily, making eBird the largest biodiversity-related citizen science project in the world.

Bay-breasted Warbler
(winter plumage)

Tranquilo Bay boasts 224 species of birds that, over the course of the year, can be found on our property. Spanning over 200 acres, the majority of Tranquilo Bay is heavily forested and hugged by about a kilometer of mangrove coastline. The birds, insects, mammals and other wildlife we encounter in addition to the lush greenery that supports all this life runs on a fairly cyclical pattern over the course of the year. The neotropical migratory birds pass through Tranquilo Bay in the spring and fall and they rely on the fruiting of various trees and bushes that help fuel their journey. The local resident birds base their nesting around the seasonal rains and the fruiting and flowering of the forest for the abundance of food required to raise little nestlings. By keeping track of these birds, their abundance and their activities, we are learning more about the importance of Tranquilo Bay as a refuge for the life that exists here, and even that which is just passing through.

Interesting and informative trends from the eBird database can be extrapolated through bird abundance and distribution at a variety of spatial and temporal scales. This information, in turn, can give biologists and scientific researchers information on range and abundance, migratory patterns, range expansions, all of which can help us in ways including determination of ecological requirements and habitat management for species of concern.

Baltimore Oriole
(winter plumage)

Migratory birds are especially at risk in the face of the developing world. These birds make the bi-annual journey from north to south and back again as they spend their winters here in the tropics where food is in abundance. They head back north for the spring nesting season in the US and Canada’s temperate forests where the summer days grow long, giving ample time for the birds to set up territories, build a nest and feed their young as they constantly clamor for food. At the end of the nesting season, those recently fledged youngsters have a huge journey ahead of them and many trials along the way, including finding food and safe places to rest.

Chestnut-sided Warbler
(winter plumage)

So while we monitor what birds are coming through, how many, we’re connecting ourselves here at Tranquilo Bay to the wider network. Birds don’t see state lines or country borders. They go where the food is. They rely on a safe patch of forest they rested at in years past to be there again this year. Life is unstable for these long-distance migrants. By helping keep track of them when they’re in our corner of the world, we’re helping detail more about them which might help in their future preservation.  

Another app, as if you don’t have enough already, that I really enjoy is iNaturalist. This is another data-collection app and with it you are not just documenting birds, but ALL things living, that includes plantlife, insects, mammals, trees, mushrooms, everything. This is another global database and it is developed by California Academy of Science. This is especially fun for identifying whatever lizard or strange caterpillar you may have gotten a photo of, the app has a sort of “facial recognition” which can help automatically identify the creature and if that doesn’t get you down to species level, there are naturalists and experts who can weigh in. I’ve enjoyed learning the identification of many species of moths and butterflies and various flowering plants that I couldn’t determine until I posted it on iNaturalist. And, once again, this is citizen science in action, as if I’m contributing to the biological inventory of this part of Bocas del Toro and you can too!

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.

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.  

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!