Searching for Fascinating Wildlife: Cotingas & Stunning Poison Dart Frogs

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

Male Snowy Cotinga by Natalia Decastro Gonzalez

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

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

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

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

Snowy Cotinga by Roger Morales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Local Bocas Naturalist Guide Encounters Banded Royal Terns

The North American Bird Banding Program was created to study bird movements, survival, and behavior. Since 1904, 60 million birds have been banded in North America, representing hundreds of species. More than 4 million bands have been recovered. The program is under the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the Canadian Wildlife Service. Yet, the most crucial collaborator in the chain is the curious observer (located anywhere in the world), who in the field detects a banded bird and makes the respective report on the web: www.reportband.gov.

The largest seabird colony in Virginia, USA, is a small island dominated by tens of thousands of nesting Royal Terns each spring. It is home to one of the banding sites researchers use to discover where these terns travel in winter.

Royal terns are an example of how migratory birds connect us all to remote places. Yet the habitats on which Royal Terns and other seabirds depend are threatened by numerous factors, including climate change, human disturbance, and the proliferation of predators.

Records of Royal Terns reported with bands in Central America are very scarce. Still, as the number of birders and the curiosity to observe details grows, this could increase annual records in Central America.

While on several birding tours along the western Caribbean slope offered through Tranquilo Bay Eco-Adventure Lodge, that included the San San-Pond Sak Wetland (International Ramsar Site 611), one of our guides, Roger Morales, has been on the trail of several individuals banded from Near Hampton, Hampton City, Virginia, USA (36°59’30.0 “N 76°18’30.0 “W), by Dr. James D. Fraser.

Roger’s first encounter with a banded bird was on December 4, 2021, in the vicinity of the Changuinola River with a Royal Tern who had a white band and black numbers and code 349. Then the next day, he finds a group of Royal Terns. One of those individuals had a band with code 93C. In Roger’s search to know where these terns came from, he finds www.reportband.gov. He reports his sightings. These reports become vital records for scientific studies to learn the winter movements and distance traveled as part of their yearly migratory journey.

Roger’s next observation happened on December 12, 2021, of an individual with code 46N. The first two observed were banded in July 2020; perhaps it was their first or second migratory journey through Central America, whereas the last observed had been tagged in July 2021, which meant its first trip to the Central American Caribbean.

Three months following the first observations, Roger finds a large group of Royal Terns on another Tranquilo Bay tour in the Changuinola River. This group included two banded individuals. And as a more incredible surprise, he detects that they were two of those he previously found: codes 93C and 46N. Maybe these individuals spent their winter on the coasts of Bocas del Toro.

During the following weeks, on March 11, we found bird 93C again in the same site of the Changuinola River. On March 13, in the Sixaola River (within Ramsar site 611), we found bird 46N next to a new marked tern with code 0M1. The distance between each reporting site is less than 20 km in a straight line.

This continues to be exciting for our visitors. We enjoy our ability to contribute to the knowledge of these species throughout. Learning about their life history and how these terns have managed to travel approximately 3,125 km straight from their nesting or hatching site to the coasts of Bocas del Toro.

We will continue contributing citizen science data to support researchers and the marine migrant species that visit Central America year after year.

Birding in Panama: 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 – First Trip Out Post Pandemic

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

Adding New Species to The Western Caribbean Slope Birdlist

Cape May Warbler feeding in one of the feeders, next to a Bananaquit.
Photo credits: Ramón Fernández Francés

Year by year, we are adding bird species to our Western Caribbean Slope Bird List.  It is always very exciting to find new ones, because it is a challenge that keeps getting harder with time. In the last month we added two winter Warblers: the Cape May and the Prairie Warbler.  

The Cape May Warbler was first seen by Scott Viola, having a feast of bananas, on one of the birdfeeders he designed and set near the tower. The bird became a regular visitor for almost 2 weeks, then he relocated himself to another birdfeeder at the main building.  It has brought a lot of joy to all of us bird-lovers to see this rare migrant several times.  This bird stopped breakfast on more than one occasion so that we could all enjoy it before it departs to the north.

The other new bird, a lifer for me (first time I have seen it), is the Prairie Warbler.  It was a nice surprise, during a birding trip I completed on the mainland a few weeks ago.  This Warbler is also a very rare winter migrant in Panama as they usually spend winters in Florida or the Caribbean.  However, this year we were fortunate to find it feeding in the lowlands of Bocas del Toro.

You may download the latest bird list below.

Tranquilo Bay Exhibits at the Important SpaceCoast Birding Festival

What a delight to help Jim Kimball represent Tranquilo Bay Eco-Adventure Lodge this past month for the 23rd annual Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival in Titusville, Florida!

Tranquilo Bay Owner Jim Kimball and Stacey M. Hollis, Tranquilo Bay Guide (sporting a signature Tranquilo Bay Tree Hugger shirt), in Tranquilo’s booth at this year’s Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival.

This annual festival, held along Florida’s Atlantic coast is one of connecting folks within the bird and nature-loving community while inviting them to explore and learn about birds and wildlife in a multitude of ways and across a diverse variety of destinations worldwide. One such destination represented, by Jim Kimball and yours truly, was Panama’s own Tranquilo Bay Eco-Adventure Lodge located on the enchanting island of Bastimentos set in the sparkling Caribbean archipelago of Bocas del Toro!

Surrounded by vivid and colorful photos of Tranquilo Bay birds and nature, I helped Jim man our booth at the festival. The bustling event was rife with birders, photographers, travelers, outdoor enthusiasts, nature guides, wildlife artists and all manner of nature travel-related vendors.

And the atmosphere was lively and ebullient as festival-goers and vendors alike shared stories about what they’d seen birding that morning (the festival puts on a plethora of guided nature excursions each day) in addition to many jovial renditions among outdoor enthusiasts attendees as they shared nature and wildlife experiences had both nationally and abroad, and there was, of course, plenty of discussion about future travel ideas and possibilities.

Some of the many colorful viewing possibilities at Tranquilo Bay Lodge!

An aisle down from us at the festival were our friends the Bethancourt family, members of the beloved Canopy Family, which encompasses a set of three lodges from central to eastern Panama that offer spectacular diversity in birding in a variety of key locations and ecosystems around the country. For folks who want a more complete idea of Panama’s abundant nature and diverse culture, we partner with Canopy Family to offer a joint package that seamlessly interlaces to provide a paired Tranquilo/Canopy experience that provides a robust display of true, wild Panama, a country with so much to offer from each of its many colorful corners.

The Bethancourt kids, Cristy and Roberto were looking stunning in their traditional Panamanian garb, ready for a folkloric dance performance at the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival.

For Jim, it’s fun to reconnect friends and colleagues that he knows through previous bird fairs and the business itself. I also really enjoyed seeing folks I’ve met while guiding at Tranquilo Bay and I was pleased to make many new connections with a lot of very passionate people dedicated to sharing nature with others. 

The festival also featured some wildly talented nature artists who displayed and sold all manner of bird-centric paintings which captured the eye of each and every festival-goer that passed by…including mine! I was especially drawn to and enamored with Christina Baal’s lively and colorful work in her Drawing Ten Thousand Birds endeavor and I simply fell in love with a piece I bought from Kate Dolamore, an American Kestrel, which was my spark bird back in 1990.

Art by Kate Dolamore and Christina Baal

 

It was great to meet up with Eliana Ardila Kramer of Birding by Bus, also one of the founding members of Phoebes Birding, a group dedicated to getting women and girls out into nature for birdwatching and shared outdoor experiences with like-minded ladies. Now that I can get behind!

Eliana, Jim and Luisa Conto (Nature Colombia)
For every donor that contributed $20 , Eliana would lay a red-lipstick smooch of thanks!

Eliana is raising money this year for the Champions of the Flyway birding competition. The competition was created in an effort to raise awareness around the decline of migratory raptors illegally hunted along their migratory pathways in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

This annual event is hosted by Birdlife International and partners, and the funds raised will be directed toward putting identified measures into place to combat this global issue. We at Tranquilo Bay along with many other folks at the fair thought it was a very worthy cause..and it showed on our cheeks!

While it was a busy festival and we got a lot done, Jim and I did manage to get out to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge a couple of times to enjoy the richness of Florida’s coastal environments before heading back down to our Caribbean island home..

So all in all, we had a blast, met some really great folks and enjoyed reconnecting with old friends. I’m really looking forward to encountering many of the nature lovers I met at the festival again in the future, perhaps greeting them as they arrive to Tranquilo Bay, set here in this lush, tropical corner of Bocas del Toro, Panama.

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

The Monumental Perils & 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.

Participate. Collect. Reasons to 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!

Learn More about Weird Symbiotic Relationships in Nature

Many of us have heard the name of a bird with the word “ant” in it: Antbird, Antwren Antshrike, just to mention some.  I imagine the first thought of a non-birder, is that they feed on ants, but the truth is different.  It’s related to a wonderful strategy that some of these birds, with the Ant word in their name, have evolved to take advantage of a particular group of ants: the Army Ants.

Panama Wildlife

Army ants moving through the forest.

Army ants are extremely successful in their hunting strategies.  They disperse all over an area of the tropical forest, and “cover” everything (ground, trunks, branches), and all the living creatures that encounter them try to avoid them, as fast as they can  (jumping, flying…), it’s a race for their lives. During the moments of craziness i’s when the antbirds show up and “collect” whatever they can, before these specimens fall into the army ants’ control. Obviously some other birds, without the “Ant” word on their name follow or take advantage of the army ants swarms too.

Birding Panama

Chestnut-backed Antbird (Poliocrania exsul), a common forest understory species, that is heard more often than seen, can be an opportunistically species that follows the army ants, while the swarm passes through its territory.

This is one more example of the importance of every single creature has within the ecosystems, a little disturbance can cause the reduction of an insect population, or the absence of it can easily be link with the drop of a bird or a mammal population in the same area.