Panama’s Interesting Natural History

View of Volcan Baru from BocasGeologically, Central America is one of the most complicated places on the Earth. A place where the fundamental forces at work on Earth over the last 15 million years created a land bridge that changed the world.

This new bridge not only connected the Northern and Southern terrestrial biota but changed the global oceanic circulation separating Pacific from Atlantic oceans which produced dramatic changes in weather patterns and oceanic conditions on both sides. The separation of the two oceans provoked the appearance of the Gulf Stream which warms the East Coast of North America and the Western European coasts, resulting in precipitation increases and intensification of the northern hemisphere glaciation.

This land bridge, that is also a separation wall between two oceans, happened progressively over the last fifteen-million years. As such it allowed changes that normally happen after big catastrophic events. The movement of species through the new land-bridge is known as “Great America Biotic exchange”. This exchange occurred in waves.

Species Migration across PanamaThe first migration wave happened eight-million years ago and included raccoons and sloths which where able to hop and swim from island to island within the existing island chain. Ocean foraminifera fossil data indicates a certain degree of connectivity in oceans until 3.1 million years ago.   Three-million years ago is the moment, when abundant emigrant remains are found on both sides which is considered as evidence of a continuous land bridge. Dozens of families and several dozen genera passed in both directions.

A massive migration was led by grazers in large groups (horses and llamas from North America and ground sloths from South America) which had a heavy impact on the landscape. They were followed by carnivores … at least 6 families of North American carnivores spread South with catastrophic impact on native southern grazers (since they had never met such efficient hunters).

Natural History Species MigrationOne of the last species to arrive North from the south is the opossum that reached Florida 1 million years ago.

The piece of land we now call Panama, was the last part closing the bridge that joined the two big land masses and at the same time separating the Atlantic from the Pacific Ocean forever. This makes this particular spot on Earth one of the most interesting places to study speciation, migration patterns, adaptation processes, competition, and extinction. We could say that Panama is an open air natural evolution laboratory.

Scott’s Thoughts on Learning the Yard Birds


Bananaquit by Scott Viola

Last week, we heard from Tres about the kids’ science class for the school year 2015/2016.  This week we hear from Scott:


Blackburnian Warbler by Scott Viola

We started the bird class at the beginning of this school year because a family was planning to come in the summer, and we (the kids) were to be the guides. We have sketched and studied every bird on site, except for the most recent additions to our list.


Yellow-crowned Night-Heron by Scott Viola

Every week, bird flashcards were created to tell us which birds to look into. Usually, five were assigned every week, but once it varied to seven! We designate common names, Latin names description, size, food, habitat, and location for each bird. We may draw or insert a picture of the bird. I’ve always drawn them.


Black Skimmer by Scott Viola

As I went through the school year, I began to notice the bird life surrounding me. I never saw the thrushes, hummingbirds, warblers, flycatchers, seedeaters, and more before we studied them. I picked up many calls and songs, which are as helpful as sight, too.


Magnolia Warbler by Scott Viola

Today, I recognize many of our birds by sight and sound. I locate some birds, especially flycatchers, by sound. I’ve acquired a pair of binoculars (Mr. Jeri says “a binocular”) of my own. I use them whenever I go birding, or even just walking or playing outdoors. I never know what will appear.


Stripe-throated Hermit by Scott Viola

Blue-throated Goldentail at Tranquilo Bay

Blue-throated Goldentail at Tranquilo Bay

Last week, when some guests and I where preparing to go for a hike, we started by enjoying the hummingbird activity outside their cabin.   To our great surprise, in the group of hummingbirds feeding was an uncommon species for this part of the country, a gorgeous male Blue-throated Goldentail, also known as Blue-throated Sapphire (Hylocharis eliciae).

The bird stayed around the entire day feeding on the same plant, and everybody that wanted to see it, got to enjoy it and photograph it. And off course, after the hike I came back with my camera to get some pictures.

This species has been observed on the Tranquilo Bay grounds only one time before.  This time we have been allowed to enjoy it for a long time, because it is still coming back to the same plant to feed.  It is chasing away the Crowned Woodnymphs, Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds and Stripe-throated Hermit, that are feeding on the same plant.

Blue-throated Sapphire

More news about the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds

Panama Migrant Birding

A couple of weeks ago I posted about the first observations, for this year, of the Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris), a migratory hummingbird that it is uncommon in this part of the country.

So far we know that its been around, since the end of February, and we have photographed three different Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, a male, a female and an immature male. Christine Warren, one of our guests, got a picture earlier this month of the young male.  You can just see the first red feathers coming in on its throat.  Thanks a lot Christine for sharing your picture with us!

The winter visitor is back

Migrant Hummingbird PanamaTwo days ago, Ramon and a guest saw a male and female of an uncommon but quite punctual migrant hummingbird at Tranquilo Bay, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris). This observation is the third we have had of the species in the last four years, with very few days of difference between observations.

The Ruby-throated Hummingbird is an uncommon migratory species in this part of the country. The day Ramon and the guest saw the elusive migrant they saw a female and a male.  So, of course the next day, as soon I got a chance I went to wait for the visitor.  After a little more than half an hour waiting, a female Ruby-throated showed up for a quick visit to the same plant the two birds visited the day before.  I patiently continued waiting and the female bird came again.   I got to take some decent pictures to share with you.   We will keep an eye on the bird and keep you posted about the extent of this 2016 visit.

The numbers of species keep racing for our bird list

Birding Panama

Black-collared Hawk (Busarellus nigricollis), the last species add to our Western Caribbean Slope birdlist.

It’s always exciting going on a wildlife observation trips around the archipelago, because it’s likely to get something new, that we never have seen before.  The province of Bocas del Toro always has surprises for you if you are patient and spend time outside.

Today I´m referring to our Western Caribbean Slope bird list.  As of our April update, we had a  total of 483 species seen for the different locations where we go birding, now the number of species is 497.  That means over 50% of all the species in the country, very impressive, don´t you think? I know it will continue to grow, showing the amazing diversity and richness of this part of the country and the province of Bocas del Toro.

Of those 497 species of birds we have now seen on our excursions, 203 species have been seen at Tranquilo Bay. The new updated version of the Clements 6.9 birdlist is also available on the webpage.

Elusive Visitor – Mangrove Cuckoo

Panama Birding

Mangrove Cuckoos (Coccyzus minor) photograph at Tranquilo Bay, in the edge of the forest near one of the cabins.

Mangrove Cuckoos (Coccyzus minor) are secretive birds.  They use big areas of mangrove forest to forage and the fact they are usually silent make them hard to see or monitor. The aspects such as abundance, migration and resident populations in the different countries where the species is found is poorly known.

The distribution of the species goes from the southern coast of Florida, with very few reports for the South of New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana and Alabama, all the way down to the cost of Brazil. The species is resident on most of the islands in the West Indies. In Panama the species is seen mostly during migration, with more reports of it the on the Pacific coast, but it’s not clear if the specie reproduce in the country or not. Some studies with radio transmitters in south-western Florida have shown that the species may breed from May until July.

During the migration it i’s possible to see this species at Tranquilo Bay within other parts of the archipelago.  Some times we see them in the mangroves, but also in the forest near the mangroves.  More than once they have surprised us with its peculiar call or just standing up in front of us, and twisting its head as if it was checking us out in great detail, which just happens to be its way of searching for insects.

Birdwatching Panama

Picture credits Linette Mansberger. Mangrove Cuckoo (Coccyzus minor) observed from the mail building, at Tranquilo Bay.

Bird Island – an all-time top ten

Something that it repeats in time, through the years and with an established pattern that joins us around an idea, can be called a tradition. On every VENT (Victor Emanuel Nature Tours) tour group that comes to visit us at Tranquilo Bay, the participants are asked by Tour Leader (and dear friend) Jeri Langham, to make a TOP TEN list of their experiences during the week-long tour.  Anything goes on the top ten list: a person, situation, color, smell or anything that calls our attention.

Panama Bird WatchingThrough the years I have seen and heard many top ten experiences. We have had many good moments to choose from, but there is one experience that is always highlighted is the visit to Bird Island (Swan´s Cay or Isla Pájaro).

This magical place is one of the few “all-time top ten” experiences such that is a traditional top ten experience. It is not hard to understand why it is so special, but it is really hard to explain the experience with words.

Birding by Boat

When you are traveling in the boat in front of the north point of Isla Colón you begin to recognize the massive “Swan with a submerged head” shape rock in the middle of the ocean. It is hard to believe that it could survive the exposure to the open ocean’s strength when other rocks around, like the “Sail Rock” are loosing their fight against time and elements.

Birdwatching Panama As you get closer, you see some white dots start circling around the jungle rock. Then as you are approaching closer still, the white specs become a white bird with an extraordinary long tail, the Red-billed Tropicbird (Phaethon aethereus). This rock has the only-known nesting colony in Panama.

Magnificent Frigatebird But that is not the only neighbor on the rock. Tropicbirds share the island with Brown boobies ( Sula leucogaster), Magnificent Frigatbirds ( Fregata magnificens), Pale-vented Pigeons (Patagioenas cayennensis ), and many other visitors like Kingfishers, Common Black Hawk (Beteogallus anthracinus), Green Heron (Butorides virescens).

Panama Birding

Mentioning their names cannot bring to your mind the spectacular display of sounds, jiggling feathers, interactions or just, the breeze of the ocean cooling you down while witnessing the natural piece of art that Bird Island is.

And that is why, we all share our Bird Island memories as some of the most precious souvenirs from Bocas del Toro.

Three-wattled Bellbird and Stub-tailed Spadebill

Two of the most interesting species of birds that inhabit Tranquilo Bay´s trails, have been very active lately, during the past month almost every time I go to the trail, I got to see them or, at least, I heard them calling. I am talking about the Three-wattled Bellbird (Procnias tricarunculata) and the Stub-tailed Spadebill (Platyrinchus cancrominus).

Birding Panama

The unmistakable sound of the Three-wattled Bellbird surrounding you, almost “hitting” you, happens only part of the year because during the breeding season (March- mid August) they are on higher ground (2300 -7000 feet). L.S. Crandall gives this explanation of the calling behavior, which I consider very precise (Zoologica, 1948, pp.113-114,pl.1) “The mouth is open widely, until the lower mandible approximates a right angle to the upper … the body is then pumped rapidly up and down for about five seconds. This movement then ceases and with the body, legs and wings rigid, as violent convulsion of the throat and neck is followed by the sharp metallic bell.”

Three-wattled Bellbird Once you hear the sound, it is unforgettable, and the first thought is always the same … How does it make it? followed by .. Where is it? Because they like to be in open perches in the canopy so they are normally under cover of leaves if you look up from the bottom of the trees. Now it is a very good time to get delighted by their call and their beauty.

Panama Birdwatching In the case of the Stub-tailed Spadebill, it is a year round neighbor in the forested islands of Bocas del Toro Archipelago, and only here … because this species is subplanted by the Golden-crowned Spadebill in Bocas del Toro mainland.

Even living here within the Tranquilo Bay forest all year-long, he is a very secretive bird, you can hear them but the call doesn’t always repeat, it is not the case now because they are very active, calling and playing around. You can see these “little balls” hopping around one after the other, providing also a great opportunity to make some good photographic shots.

Birding at Tranquilo Bay

Prong-billed Barbet

Birding Panama Western Caribbean SlopeSometimes, as part of our Tranquilo Bay birding trips, we travel to the mainland to find species of birds which are not found on the islands of Bocas del Toro. Today the species I chose is a bird that I love to hear when I´m in the mountains, the Prong-billed Barbet (Semnornis frantzii).  This bird has a very particular call heard over long distances.

Prong-billed Barbets have a small distribution range, are found in Western Panama and Costa Rica, and live with in wet mountain forest, edges and well develop second-growth forest. Feed mostly on fruits, nest in tree cavities, like Woodpeckers. When is not breeding season they forage in groups, of up to 12 birds, during breeding season the groups break up. This species has an altitudinal migration, moving from 2460 ft. (750 meters) over the sea level to 8038 ft. (2450 meters).

Source of the call: