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.

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!

Relatioships 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.

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!

 

Day Tour @ Tranquilo Bay

Bocas Day TourWe are really excited to be offering a day tour @ Tranquilo Bay starting this week.  People in the community and a number of visitors to the archipelago have contacted us over time and asked us about providing use of the grounds and facilities to travelers within the archipelago.  We have worked through all the challenges so that we may offer an awesome experience to our day tour participants without effecting our wonderful guests.  So, we begin offering day tours this Wednesday.

Kayaking PanamaWe have coordinated with a botero to provide transportation to and from Tranquilo Bay from Isla Colon at a reasonable price which makes it easy for people to sign up and head out to Isla Bastimentos for a jungle and ocean experience.

Bocas del Toro SnorkelingWe have added a new Day Tour page on our website for you to learn all about it.  As of today, the tour will be available on Wednesdays and Thursdays for up to ten people each day.  Please contact us if you have any questions or have a larger group that would like to visit.

 

One of those special moments in nature

Birding Panama

Two Double-toothed Kites perched, on the same tree, can you see them?

Some time ago I was at the observation tower, looking for raptors, with a raptor specialist, and suddenly I spotted a Double-toothed Kite  (Harpagus bidentatus) near by, and we started enjoying the great views of this relatively common raptor (in this part of the country).

The name of this bird refers to the two teeth like shape structures on the edges of both sides of the upper mandible.

Then, a second Double-tooth Kite shows up, near the first one.  They were a pair – that’s not so common.  We were enjoying (even more) the time we got to spend in their presence. And a few minutes later the first bird flies down to the ground grab something with its feet.  Then it flew to another tree in front of us again which definitely made our day!

Canopy Tower Bocas

One of the Kites dive in to the ground and catch something

 

Western Caribbean Slope Birdlist Update

Fall Migration

From left to right: Short-billed Dowitcher, Red Knot, Greater Yellowlegs and Black-necked Stilt.

I am happy to share with all of you the updated Clements list for the different locations where we go birding along the Western Caribbean Slope of Panama.  At this point we have a total of 541 species in our list, and for the Tranquilo Bay grounds, a total of 221 species (+1 subspecies, the Yellow “Mangrove” Warbler).  The updated bird list may be downloaded below.

One of the last additions to our list was the Red Knot (Calidris canutus), a migrant shorebird that can nest as far as the North of Canada, and pass through Panama during its winter migration to southern South America. These birds can go through distances up to 15,000 km, between circumpolar breeding areas and winter grounds in South America, Africa, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

Last fall, during birding trips, we observed this species on two occasions, but only one individual, at the same area, the mouth of the Changuinola River.

Sources:

https://birdsna.org/Species-Account/bna/species/redkno/introduction

https://www.avesdechile.cl/374.htm

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Red_Knot/lifehistory

TBWCS918

White Pelican – a New Year’s Surprise

New Species Bocas del Toro

American White Pelican, near the mouth of the Changuinola River. Photo: Ann Fleck

On the first of January we had a great site, while we were birding at the Snyder Canal, two American White Pelicans were resting near the mouth of the Changuinola River. This is the first time the species was observed and reported on this side of the country.

In Panama, the species is vagrant, with a few reports on the Pacific coast of Panama, in Herrera and eastern Panama, and recently one single bird has been observed, for over 3 years, at the Bay of Panama.

Birding Panama

American White Pelican, near the mouth of the Changuinola River. Photo: Ann Fleck

These birds are the heaviest flying birds in the world; they feed on fish and other aquatic organisms, dipping their beaks into the surface of the water. They do not dive like Brown Pelicans do. Almost the entire plumage is white, except the primary and outer secondary feathers are black.

This species often travels long distances in large flocks. They are common and abundant in North America; breed at inland lakes, rivers or marshes, in Canada and United States; and migrate during winter to southern coastal areas.

Hummingbird or insect?

Nature is full of incredible adaptations – today I want to review one of many curiosities of nature, a moth that looks like a hummingbird. Known as Hummingbird moths, Bee Moth, Hawk Moth or Bee Hawk Moth, just to mention a few common names, this group of Sphinx moths, are an abundant group, with over 1200 species around the world.

Sphinx moth Pic. Sphinx moth (Aellopos titan) feeding.

The moths have received their name because they have many similarities to hummingbirds:

  • feeding in similar species of flowering plants
  • efficient pollinators
  • the shape of their bodies
  • the tip of their tail opens into a fan
  • some species have bright colors
  • the skill to fly sideways and backwards.

At this point sounds like they are very similar, and it will be hard to tell them a part, but there are also differences between those two sets of creatures – the hummingbird moths, are smaller, have antennae, and are not as aggressive as hummingbirds!

Stripe-throated Hermit Pic. Stripe-throated Hermit (Phaethornis striigularis) feeding.

If you are a new garden observer, be patient, and in a little bit of time you will be able differentiate one from the other.