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.

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.

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!

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.

 

Forest floor colorful cups

The world of the fungi is an unknown for many of us. But the truth is that this group of organisms are everywhere and have very important to humans.

The cup fungus group it is composed of many species of mushrooms.   Some of them are easy to recognize, by their cup appearance, but others need to be observed with a microscope for a positive identification.

Today I am writing about the Cookeina, a genus of a cup fungus. This is one of the must common and colorful mushrooms of this group, commonly known as Pink cup fungus (Cookeina speciosa). It grows on decaying wood on the rainforest floor.  It can be observed year round growing individually or in groups.

pink cup fungiiThere isn’t much information available about this species of mushroom on internet.   Mexico has completed the most studies with mushrooms for human consumption, and they report this species can be eaten. However, since there isn’t much information available about this colorful and attractive mushroom, I suggest enjoying them with your eyes.

Collared Aracaris – Colors of the tropics

Birding Panama

The colorful Collared Aracaris (Pteroglossus torquatus), feeding on the side of the road, during a birding trip to the mainland.

The toucans are a family of birds, characterized for its colorful, long and “heavy looking” beak. Probably many of us think in the tropics when we think in this family of birds, a very acquired thought, because they are only found in the neotropics. Aracaris and Toucanets are also members of this family of beautiful birds

Today I am going to tell you a little bit about the Collared Aracari (Pteroglossus torquatus), this species can be found in a wide variety of different habitats: primary and secondary growth forests, forest patches, and plantations.

As easy as they are to spot when they are flying, the are likely just as hard to find when they are quietly feeding in the mid-storey of a tree. When they feed, they swallow the entire fruit and then regurgitate several times, with the intention to get all the pulp from the fruit.

These birds usually move in groups, roost and nest in holes of trees. This species is not found on Bastimentos Island, but can be seen in many of the different locations where we go birding, mostly on the mainland.

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.

Dwarf squirrels in Western Panama

Fossil evidence proves that there were no squirrels in South America before the formation of Panama, the natural bridge that allowed migration in both directions, of a wide variety of species, known as the Great American Interchange.

Dwarf squirrels (Microsciurus), are found in evergreen tropical rainforest regions of Central and South America. Their small size, dull coloring, shy behavior and speed make them difficult to find. These are some of the reasons why not much is known about these little mammals.

Palo Seco Protected Forest

The home of the Pygmy Squirrel, evergreen tropical rainforest, Palo Seco Protected Forest, Bocas del Toro.

In Western Panama, two species of this group can be found, the Alfaro´s Pygmy Squirrel (Microsciurus alfari) and the Western Dwarf Squirrel (Microsciurus mimulus).

Both of the species look very much a like. The best way to differentiate them, is by the white ear spots on the Alfaro´s Pygmy Squirrel. However, the ear spots are absent on the animals found in Costa Rica and Western Panama, which makes it difficult to tell them apart in this part of the world, as their distribution overlaps and both species have similar behaviors.

Panama Wildlife

Pygmy Squirrel (Microsciurus spp.) photograph in the Palo Seco Protected Forest, Bocas del Toro.

None of the members of this genus are endangered, but it is hard to know the real numbers of their populations because of the lack of information and studies related to those cute creatures.

 

Beauty and diversity: Part 2

We all have encountered orchids in our lives, some species, such as the Phalaenopsis or moth orchids, are popular as a houseplants. In the tropics we find some plants of this group blooming throughout the year.

Fire star or rainbow orchid

A common orchid found on the roadsides or within the grasslands of the mountains of Bocas del Toro and Chiriqui is the Epidendrum radicans, known in Spanish as a fire star or rainbow orchid.  Its bright yellow, orange, and red flowers gets everyone’s attention. The flower opens with two colors, yellow and orange, and when it gets pollinated it changes color to an uniform bright red color.

Slipper orchid

Not as common, but a good example to show the diversity of this group is the Slipper orchid or Lady´s slippers (Phragmipedium longifolium). It has a wide distribution in the temperate areas from Mexico down to South America. Insects pollinate all Slipper orchids. The insects are deceived because all the species in this particular group of orchids do not produce nectar or any other reward for its pollinators.