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.

 

 

Furry residents of the tropical forest

Panama has three species of sloths: the Hoffman´s Two-toed Sloth (Choloepus hoffmanni), the Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth (Bradypus variegatus), and the unique Pygmy three-toed sloth (Bradypus pygmaeus), restricted to the Escudo de Veraguas Island, an island about 2 hours by boat from Tranquilo Bay.

Two-toed Sloth Panama

Two Hoffman´s Two-toed Sloth (Choloepus hoffmanni)

The life of all the sloths occur mostly at the trees, where they perform extremely well, they are also good swimmers, but don’t do it in a regular basis, only when its needed; they try to avoid the ground, where they are more vulnerable to potential predators (one of their main predators are big cats, and a sloth on the ground will be an easy meal).

Panama Wildlife

Hoffman´s Two-toed Sloth (Choloepus hoffmanni)

Two-toed Sloths are slightly larger than three-toed Sloths, harder to see, because of their nocturnal habits, never the less, they can be observed during the day, actively moving or feeding, for short periods of time. You can imagine how happy we where when we found those two Hoffman´s Two-toed Sloths, when we encounter them a few weeks ago, taking a siesta and eating a snack in a very open area, at eye level!

Praying from my window

Insects PanamaNature lovers can be defined in many ways, because we are very different human beings, but one thing that I always find in all of us, is the capacity for surprise and the excitement that any natural event that we find provides. We also know that it can happen anywhere at anytime, I’m sure that, while reading these lines, if you are a nature lover, you are reliving one of the memories of wild encounters under strange situations, at the “wrong time”, “wrong place” or just in an unexpected location.

One event that we got to witness was a praying mantis hatch … in our window! As you can imagine, it was not hard to find, but the timing was great.  We got to see all the young mantis around their Ootheca, which is the protective covering that houses the eggs until they hatch. Young praying mantis will hatch from 3 to 6 weeks after the eggs were laid and they will be an avid predator like its parents.  These nymphs go for small prey but can also feast on their siblings as some studies point out.

It was a gift to be there, witnessing this amazing natural event.

When we found them, not knowing how much time the hatch would last, we immediately went to the school to show the kids and anybody we found along the way.  Almost everybody on site that day got to experience this ephemeris nature show and we all have a new memory to store in our wildlife encounter’s shelf.Wildlife Panama

Decommissioning and Commissioning a Communications Tower

communicationstowerHere at Tranquilo Bay we have two towers. One, that we commissioned in the summer of 2005, for our communications and a second one, that we commissioned in January 2013 for wildlife observation. Later this week, beginning on July 14, we will decommission the communications tower and replace it with a new one. We anticipate that the changeover will take us less than a week’s time.

We have learned a lot in the years since we installed the first tower. One of the things we have always tried to do is use the best materials we could afford so that our maintenance would be less expensive and time-consuming in the long run. At the time we purchased the communications tower in 2004 we had limited choices about materials, etc. here in Panama. So, we installed what was available at the time.

Thirteen years later the communications tower needs to be replaced. The tower we are replacing it with is made of better materials and will not need to be replaced for a longer time. Thus – it will be something the Tranquilo Bay children are responsible for when the time comes.

As such, we will be out of touch for about a week’s time. We will have radio communications via VHF and some cellular connection while the process is underway. We will also travel over to Isla Colon to check emails, phone calls, etc. every few days.

We believe that we will be without Internet and telephone communications other than on a delayed basis for up to a week through July 21, 2018.  Please understand that we will get back to you – but it may take longer than usual to do so.  Thank you for your patience and understanding.

A case of range expansion through the Birds of Panamá guidebooks

Birding PanamaIt seems that the wanderer likes Bocas del Toro:  A case of range expansion through the Birds of Panamá guides

The geographical areas occupied by bird species are not jails, that confine them through history and they can never leave, in fact, in many cases they change through time. The change in a bird’s range can be signaling an important change in their own habitat and also they might have important consequences in the communities of the habitats that are invaded. Nowadays, with technology and increased public interest in birding we have an extraordinary tool to see the changes in range expansion of bird species at almost real time.

I would like to expose a recent case of range expansion that happened in Bocas del Toro, Panamá, just by checking what they say about a particular bird with the different authors through time, in their bird guides of Panama.

The bird that I am going to write about was once described, by Alexander Wetmore in 1968 in his Volume 2 of his The Birds of the Republic of Panama, as “Small, long-tailed parakeet; green above, with a prominent blue band in the wing.” When he described it, it was only found in the “Tropical Zone of western Bocas del Toro. known only from Almirante, and the Río Changuinola”. At that time, the bird was called Aratinga astec astec, and the common name was Aztec Parakeet. Now we call this bird Olive-throated Parakeet and it´s scientific name is Aratinga nana aztec.

As a curiosity, “ the first specimen of this bird taken in Panamá was collected at Farm 3 on Río Changuinola April 15,1927, by Austin Paul Smith. This bird is in the Havemeyer collection in the Peabody Museum at Yale”. There were other specimens collected, all the same year, two males by Rex Benson at Almirante and a female by Hasso von Wedel at Changuinola. With very few historical records, he wrote: “ It is suggestive to note that the four specimens recorded to date (1968) from Panamá were taken between April and October in the same year. Possibly they were wanderers from further north.”

Some years later, Robert Ridgley, in the second edition (1989) of his A Guide to the Birds in Panama with Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras wrote, in the status and distribution section: ”Rare in lowlands of western Bocas del Toro (Almirante-Rio Changuinola area) where known from only six specimens, all taken within the April-October period (four in 1927; one 1961; one in 1963). Perhaps merely an irregular wanderer from Costa Rica; It´s too difficult to see why this species has not settled and even spread eastward along Panama´s Caribbean slope.”

He was very certain that the habitat conditions eastern to it´s range, were suitable for the establishment of this species and he was right, because the presence of Olive-throated Parakeet has been spreading east, passing Chiriquí Grande and, to the Islands, they are found in Isla Colon, Isla Popa and Isla Bastimentos (I have personally seen them on the last two islands).  We can find these changes in 2010 in George R. Angher´s The Birds of Panamá: A Field Guide where he describes the bird as “Common in lowlands of Bocas del Toro”.

In 42 years, the Olive-throated Parakeet has gone from being considered a wanderer to being completely established along the Bocatoranian coast and to being a common bird. We even had a nest at Tranquilo Bay some years ago.  The couple lived with us for more than a year on the grounds of the lodge. This is but only one little example how dynamic the world we live in is.

Panamanian Night Monkeys

The Panamanian Night Monkeys (Aotus zonalis) are one of the species of the Aotus genus. These genus are found in Central and South America. The Panamanian Night Monkey it’s restricted to different areas of the country and the North Western part of Colombia.

They sleep in hollow trees, during the day, and are active at dusk. The family in this picture was two parents and a sub-adult baby, they where sleeping in a dead peach palm tree near the cabins.

These monkeys live in small groups and are socially monogamous.  The female gives birth, usually, one baby at the time, and very sporadically twins. Once the baby is born the male plays a major role in the care of the offspring.

Much information regarding these monkeys is missing.  Many aspects of the species, including the major threats and status of the population are unknown.  They are currently  under the Red List Category and their Criteria is Data Deficient.  It is very likely that habitat destruction is one of the main threats for these beautiful creatures because of the significant forest loss within Panama in recent decades.

Bocas Shorts #4: Two-toed Sloth Commute

Sloth CommuteAfter its nap, the two-toed Sloth start crawling up higher, looking for branches that connected, and using the palm leaves to get to the power line.  At least that’s what we thought, that he was planning on going across the power line, because we have seen this species use the wire as a way to get access to to some of the trees where they feed near the main building or just to move from one patch of forest to another, but…

In the end the sloth had something different in mind.  He successfully accessed the power line and then went on to the next palm tree.  Why? We are not sure, but we chose to move away and let it make its way alone.  A few minutes later I went back to look for it and could not find it.

Frog v. Robot

Frog v. Robot

We invite scientists from the Bocas del Toro Research Station of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute to come out to Tranquilo Bay and do their research.  On March 9, we had a group of three scientists come out to take some photos and videos of the poison dart frogs interacting with robot frogs.  They put a number of colored robot morphs in play with our resident frogs to see the interaction between the real frog and the robot.  The real frog did not enjoy any other frogs moving in on his territory.  We hope you enjoy the video they shared with us as much as we have.

Variable Seedeater Song Mimicry

Today’s post is by Scott Viola.  Our children, as some of you may know, learned all 200 yard birds we have at Tranquilo Bay for their science class last year.  Scott truly took to the birds and was especially interested in their songs and sounds.  He has learned to identify many of the birds by sound as well as visually.  Here is a report he prepared for me about a strange phenomenon he encountered.

Panama Bird Song Mimicry

I have acknowledged a phenomenon on which I can find almost nothing: the Variable Seedeater mimics other birds’ songs.

For months after learning the Variable Seedeater’s song in Bocas del Toro, Panama, it made me think of rubbing a wet window with rubber. One day around New Years, I was walking in a semi-open area less than a hundred feet above sea level and heard a string of bird songs issued back-to-back from an elevated position. I was mystified, there being nothing that I could see. I considered that someone had put a playback speaker in a tree, but that was unlikely. After a few minutes, I saw a small, black bird exit the tree, and the calls ceased. I knew what it was, a seedeater or seedfinch, but I didn’t consider that it could have been the thing making the noise. A few days later, I heard it again in a nearby location. This time, I had a clear view and identified it as a Variable Seedeater.

I took two recordings of it singing, and later made videos with text on-screen notifying what bird song it was imitating. I have observed it mimicking Red-lored Parrots, Blue-headed Parrots, something that I believe is based on the Groove-billed Ani or the Common Black Hawk, Black-cheeked Woodpeckers, Blue-gray or Palm Tanagers, Tropical Gnatcatchers, Yellow-bellied Elaenias, Great Kiskadees, Boat-billed Flycatchers (probably), and Roadside Hawk, all of which are common in the area. The seedeater also has a “Brr brr Brrr” sound, and a distinctive, high-pitched “eaw.”

It doesn’t include all the birds every time it sings, but there is a loose order in which it tends to put them: parrots, the Ani or the hawk-like sound, and the rest, often with the Black-cheeked Woodpecker next to the flycatchers. The song lasts around seven to eight seconds, with 3-6 dedicated in the beginning to the parrots, the Ani-like song, and its own add-ons.

The song also changes depending on region, as can be seen on http://xeno-canto.org/explore?query=variable+seedeater. I believe this is caused by the birds it mimics, which are different everywhere. On Xeno Canto, I managed to identify a parrot in the midst of unfamiliar noises. The sounds don’t even make me think of birds; they are higher pitched and from a different place, making it sound like the song I had heard before my epiphany. The seeming randomness is stated in every Variable Seedeater resource I can find, except for one. At “The Sights and Sounds of Costa Rica” (http://www.naturesongs.com/CRsounds.html), the author wrote in the section for the Variable Seedeater that it mimics, and had two recordings that clearly contained mimicking. He was hearing the same thing I did. In them, I can tell that the seedeater mimics bird sounds. In one, I hear a Black-cheeked Woodpecker.