Join Us At Green Acres Chocolate Farm For An Informative Experience

A trip to the Green Acres Chocolate Farm is unlike any other chocolate tour. That soon becomes clear as we pull up in the boat to this lush hillside rainforest and botanical wonderland.

Chocolate Farm Tour Sign

We encounter howler monkeys bellowing from the distant treetops, sloths hanging from the mangroves and toucans, fruit crows, and black-chested jays flying between the mature fruiting trees of this protected forest. The tour is a tropical nature experience. Gary takes us meandering through his dazzling botanical refuge. He explains about flora and fauna and our essential connections to all this abundant life that grows around us.

Plants and Trees at Chocolate Farm

We walk along in the shade of giant fig, almendro, and wild nutmeg trees towering above us. Gary explains how these cacao trees can grow and produce within the shade of the rainforest, thus maintaining the cycling of nutrients through this rich, healthy ecosystem. This cycle benefits both the cacao and the rainforest trees alike. He explains the fascinating process of growing chocolate in the rainforest. He touches on how the insects, squirrels, and monkeys play an important part in the life history of the cacao trees. These trees hold those precious, antioxidant-rich seeds that have made for a worldwide addiction.

Poison Dart Frog Bocas del Toro

We find an array of herpetofauna: golden-headed geckos, Talamanca Rocket frogs, and the stunning green-and-black poison dart frogs. The poison dart frogs gleam a most outrageous shade of emerald green, marked with a smattering of black blotches. Each each individual frog has its own unique “fingerprint.” These primarily terrestrial frogs hop along, searching for ants, oblivious to the excitement they cause. To maintain their toxicity, poison dart frogs feed upon ants for the poison which they excrete from glands when they feel threatened.   

Chocolate Farm Collage

Gary leads us back down to the waterfront to a tiny processing shed. With a drying platform and fermentation shed on either side of it. The “chocolate factory” or Casita Cacao, is a small-scale operation which was macgyvered by original owner Dave Cerutti using household tools, PVC piping, and small motors. This set up processes the dried cacao beans into nibs and then grinds and melts it into bars. The bars are sold to groups like us who come visit the farm.
When Gary arrived at Green Acres in 2019, he was already well invested in his non-profit, Planet Rehab. This organization is dedicated to wildlife and environmental conservation and education. Gary has interwoven this chocolate farm experience as an opportunity to impart what he has learned about how we can help care for and support local ecosystems. One initiative, planting endangered native tree species, is a component of a healthy rainforest and a way to work with the indigenous Ngöbe community.

Chocolate Farm Product Collage

By the end of the half-day tour, we tasted, enjoyed, and appreciated the rainforest and the decadence of Bocas del Toro’s gold: 100% cacao. Oh, and maybe a delicious shot of Green Acres’ famous chocolate rum as we cheer “salad!” to a beautiful day of learning and love for nature and its biodiverse bounty.

Caribbean Sea Adventure: Bocas Mangrove Kayak & Snorkel You Will Love

Without a doubt, this is one of my favorite tours – and it is the strangest at the same time. We visit the colorful and complex submarine world located within the Caribbean waters. With the help of a kayak, a diving mask, and a snorkel, we discover innumerable corals, fish, jellyfish, crustaceans, and many other living beings, very different from those we see on land.

We begin from Tranquilo Bay’s dock, where we board the kayaks to go to the mangrove lagoon. To reach it, we paddle for a few minutes through the bay’s calm waters until we hit the mangroves. Once there, we cross through passageways and narrow tunnels of this peculiar marine forest dominated by red mangroves.

Slowly crossing this habitat in the kayaks, we appreciate several crabs of different sizes and colors, moving on to the aerial roots of the mangroves. A little higher up in the upper branches, with some luck, we spot kingfishers, herons, warblers, and other birds specialized in this micro-ecosystem.

These forests can look very similar, appearing drab and unproductive. But in reality, they are complex ecological communities, which are the habitat of hundreds of species from different kingdoms. Mangroves gradually colonize the shores of the sea, trapping sediment with their roots, creating soil, and at the same time decomposing biomass, perfect as a habitat for crabs, shrimp, insects, and other invertebrates. Of course, life is not restricted to the sediments and the aerial zone of the mangroves; inside the water, there are endless other organisms.

Dwarf Round Herring (Jenkinsia lamprotaenia) swimming between the mangrove roots
Dwarf Round Herring (Jenkinsia lamprotaenia) swimming between the mangrove roots

We submerge and start snorkeling once we arrive at the open lagoon. The roots of the red mangrove are an excellent site for fish reproduction; they are like the ocean’s nursery. It is possible to observe many kinds in this area: Dwarf Round Herring, Schoolmaster, Striped Parrotfish, French Grunt, Three-spot Damselfish, and Neon Gobies. Clams and colorful sea sponges may also be seen attached to the roots. And that’s not all; the lagoon shelters many Upside-down Jellies, who take refuge on the ground in the middle of the small lake, with their tentacles pointing upwards as if they were anemones. Diving in a little, it is possible to appreciate these strange organisms from very close, without any risk.

 Upsidedown Jelly (Cassiopea frondosa)
Upsidedown Jelly (Cassiopea frondosa)

After having met the main species of the lagoon, we go up again in the kayaks, this time heading to the coral reefs, located on the opposite side of the mangroves.

Corals and mangroves have a unique symbiotic relationship. In contrast, mangroves hold the excess sedimentation keeping it from returning to marine waters. Coral reefs protect mangroves from strong waves; thus, each benefits the other.

It’s time for another stop in the ocean; in this area, the reef landscape is dominated by Fire Corals, Branched Finger Corals, Boulder Star Corals, Boulder Brain Corals, and sea sponges in various shapes, sizes, and colors. This underwater “garden” is home to hundreds of species of fish and other fascinating creatures.

Photo: Striped parrotfishes (Scarus iseri) & Boulder Brain Coral
Photo: Striped parrotfishes (Scarus iseri) & Boulder Brain Coral

Without much difficulty, very close to the surface, you can see Blue-headed Wrasse, Yellowtail Damselfish, Slippery Dick, Great Barracuda, Four-eye Butterflyfish, Blue Tang Surgeonfish, Stoplight Parrotfish, and several others. Delving a little deeper, it is possible to see crabs, lobsters, and with luck, rays, and even sharks and octopuses.

Yellow Stingray (Urolophus jamaicencis)
Yellow Stingray (Urolophus jamaicencis)

In terms of biodiversity, coral reefs worldwide are comparable to tropical forests due to the large number of species they contain. In just 0.1% of the ocean’s surface, they have about 25% of all marine species.

The Bocas del Toro area has more than 280 species of corals and jellyfish, 220 species of fish, and hundreds of other marine animals, such as worms, clams, snails, crustaceans, and echinoderms.

In a few snorkels around Tranquilo Bay, it is possible to observe around 40 to 50 species of fish and many other organisms of this marine microcosm. So, make sure you take this tour and dare to peek into the Caribbean waters. With the help of a simple mask and a snorkel, you will be able to discover a hidden world full of surprises.

Foureye Butterflyfish x2 (Chaetodon capistratus) & Striped parrotfish x2 (Scarus iseri)
Foureye Butterflyfish x2 (Chaetodon capistratus) & Striped parrotfish x2 (Scarus iseri)

Join Us For An Interesting Night Hike In Bocas

The forest becomes very noisy at twilight; it’s time for the cicadas to gather, signifying that nightfall is almost here.

Valiant’s Frog by Roger Morales

As we dine, reveling in the culinary delights of Panama, we realize that we are not the only species present. A rodent with huge eyes and a captivating gaze catches our attention on the main building’s balcony. A small Wooly Opossum enjoys bananas placed on the bird feeders. How lucky we were! Having the animal close enough to photograph is a real privilege. It is one of several regular visitors to the feeders at night. Other species may appear at any time, such as the Great Four-eyed Opossum, fruit bats, and even night monkeys.

Anxious to start our nocturnal adventure, we finish with dinner. As soon as we turn on the flashlights, we notice movements in the Hagua tree in front of the dining room. A family of Crab-eating Raccoons is eating the fruits of the Genipa. We hadn’t even started the tour, and we had already seen two species of mammals!

We stroll towards the mangrove. Once inside the wetlands, we observe various crabs, spiders, and grasshoppers among the leaves of the red mangrove. This red mangrove extends to the seashore. We can also see needlefish, gobies, and a yellow stingray in the ocean, resting at the bottom near a coral reef. On the way back from the main dock, we hear strange noises – almost as if they were explosions. These are made by Pistol Shrimps. This species lives underwater and in mud, yet we can listen to their “explosions,” which they make by expelling bubbles from their pincers at high speed. These explosions manage to stun their prey so that the shrimp may capture them.

We continue with the search for nocturnal animals. Without going too far, we find a snake resting on the leaf of a palm tree, waiting for its prey. It is a Brown Vine Snake, harmless to us, so we can approach it quietly to observe it better and take some pictures. Its extended length is surprising in relation to its slender body.

Photo by Hugo Santa Cruz

During the walk, we hear different sounds, some of them belonging to frogs and others to insects. We follow one sound. After several minutes of searching, we locate a tiny Caribbean Dink Frog. This frog is about the size of the guide’s thumbnail. Who would have thought a tiny creature could emit such a loud sound? We see several amphibians and reptiles along the way: a Green Climbing Toad, a Talamanca Rocket Frog, and a Savage’s Bull Frog, as well as a Striped Basilisk, a Smooth Helmeted Iguana, and some anoles.

Photo by Hugo Santa Cruz

We hear soft movements above our heads during the thorough search for amphibians and reptiles; these aerial sounds cannot indicate anything else… a two-toed sloth! Wow, we didn’t expect that; so our attention immediately went to the forest canopy to see this beautiful nocturnal animal on the move.

Two Toed Sloth by Miguel Ibarra

On the way back to our cabins, we hear the Mottled Owl; but we can’t see it. That’s okay. Now we have an excellent excuse to do another night hike tomorrow. Maybe we can find the nocturnal monkeys?

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

Where are the people? Curious natives want to know.

White-faced Capuchin Monkey at Panama eco lodge.

Six months into the pause, the locals are wondering, where are all the people? Given there are only a few people around, I believe they might think they can take us.

I check on each of the cabanas every other day. So, when I walked up to the porch of cabana four and a chair was missing, I wondered where it had gone. The fire extinguisher was turned on its side and a walking stick was lying down directly in front of the French doors. I paused, had there been a storm in the night? No.

Looking over the side of the porch, I found the chair. Broken to pieces, but somehow still upright. Were the kids playing on this porch? Not sure, note to self, investigation necessary. 

After I turned on the air-conditioner in that cabana, I continued my walk around the others. I remembered a couple of things out of place at cabana eight, so I went over to check it out. As I approached, I heard something unusual out in the open area.

A barrel of monkeys! White-faced capuchins, to be exact. Looking at me with serious teenage angst, as I made my way up to the cabana. Hmm. Was it possible they were my vandals?

White-faced Capuchin Monkey at Bocas del Toro, Panama lodge.

The troop had been visiting cabanas five and six of late, staying mostly within the trees. A few brave individuals had decided to walk onto cabana five’s porch. Could it be the same rascals who had been on the porches of the other units? When I went up to the dining room, I asked Jim, Jay, and the kids if they thought a monkey could toss a chair off a cabana porch. Based upon what we had seen of late, the unanimous response was sure. What to do now?

The same day, we encountered a group of monkeys on the porch of cabana five. We shooed them away, but only over to cabana six. The next day, Scott scared a capuchin as he was trying to come into the dining room to pilfer a banana off the bar.  Inside the DMZ!

Something had to be done. We wanted to avoid “five little monkeys jumping on the bed.” We like watching monkeys, but we don’t want them on porches or attempting to enter any building, or God forbid, taking off with your binoculars, camera, or scope.  As much as they might enjoy these tools to spy on the other monkey tribes, we are sure you are not interested in donating them to the monkey cause. Nor do we want any of our guests waking up to this:

Monkey looking through glass directly at you.

In fairness, this monkey business had really started in January when we were placing bananas out for the birds on a feeder hanging off of the porch.  Many of our wildlife operators have asked for access to view and photograph the local birds directly from the porch.  Once the local monkeys found free food was available, they visited the bird feeder each day.  We knew we had to keep them off of the porch.  Scott quickly engineered a change to the bird feeders and put together a “monkey” feeder to keep them away from the porch and the bird feeders.  It worked, but only until it didn’t. 

We remembered a story about a similar problem some friend of ours had with monkeys entering one of their buildings and fighting with the other tribe they saw in the mirror. Their guests insisted that the local kids were tearing the place up, however, a game camera later confirmed it was indeed locals – just not humans.  So, they made a curtain and had guests close the curtain whenever they left the building. The reflection was no longer available.  No more troop skirmishes in the bathroom.

Our solution was along the same lines, but we are hoping it is temporary. Now all of our units have “curtains” over the porch windows and French doors. Thus, no reflections are available for the monkeys to wage war with the “visitors.” We also cleaned up the palm fronds and trimmed some of the trees near units, so our buildings were less accessible to our native friends.

It appears the problem is abating—limited signs of monkeys near our structures for a little over a week. Maybe we will install a distortion mirror nearby so they can “reflect” upon their behavior.

Distortion mirror photo

Outside of wanting to avoid broken glass, we need to avoid allowing the monkeys to make porches a regular part of their daily commute. They are wild animals and should be observed from afar, not quite so up close and personal as on your porch.

Many years ago, when we had just opened, a capuchin ran off with Jay’s glasses. It was a pet at a restaurant in town.  Jay went over to take a look at him and before he knew what happened, the monkey was up a tree bending his new toy in all directions.  The owner quickly responded by retrieving Jay’s freshly bent glasses and delivering a couple of cold beers for the trouble.

From Mentalfloss “Eleven Mischievous Facts about Capuchin Monkeys” by Rosemary Mosco:

“Professor Susan Perry of UCLA has been studying white-faced capuchins in the jungles of Costa Rica for 25 years. It’s grueling work, she says; “I’m always wet, chewed on, or stung.” But her hard work has paid off. She and her team have observed some amazing monkey business.

Capuchins often invent new behaviors—Dr. Perry calls them traditions—that spread through the group. One of them is, well, shoving your finger in someone else’s eye. Other traditions include sniffing each other’s hands and sucking on tails, fingers, and ears. Capuchins even bite a tuft of hair from another’s face and pass it around with their mouths. This might all be about reinforcing social bonds [PDF]. Just don’t try it with your coworkers.”

Monkeys have also been observed to do some pretty disgusting things.  They clean their feet with urine.  They great each other by sticking their fingers up each other’s noses.  Jim and Jay have stories to tell from construction days about how the monkeys would throw their own waste at passersby. Cute from afar, not so great where you want to pass some time. Thus, changing their behavior before it becomes a pattern is essential.

We want to avoid potential problems where the monkeys have become so accustomed to humans that they cause mischief as in some Costa Rican national parks. In any place where the monkeys are used to daily interactions with humans, they may approach visitors, grab or steal personal belongings, and in some cases, get aggressive. This can become a serious problem because there are shared risks in that humans are exposed to possible bites, and the animals have changed their natural behavior. Human interaction with monkeys can also spread illness such as a virus amongst the monkeys.  Better to leave each other alone and observe from a distance. At Tranquilo Bay, we like our wildlife wild!

As you can see in Tres’ video, watching them from afar is cool. Seeing them eat, jump, and move about the jungle is fun. We plan on keeping them off the buildings because, as we all remember, “George promised to be good. But it is easy for little monkeys to forget” (H. A. Ray, Curious George).

Citizen Science at Tranquilo Bay: Kids Taking Epic Photos

Whether under the water or along a forest trail here at Tranquilo Bay, my motto is always, “The more you look, the more you see!”

Wildlife Collage for Tranquilo Bay Activities and Excursions

I’ve always loved to document my observations in nature. It’s making a memory, whether through writing about it, taking a photo, making a drawing or keeping a list of what you’ve tallied along your outdoor jaunt into the wilderness. 

What’s fantastic about the multitudes of media available to us is that we’re not taking anything away from or leaving anything behind in the place we’ve visited, we’re simply capturing our own perception of a specific thing in a specific place at a specific point in time.

And while a photo can make for a lovely memory, it can also hold a wealth of information.

Bocas del Toro Coral

A marine biologist looking at this photo of a sea life-encrusted pillar holding up our dock can quantify, qualify, make speculations, determinations, hypotheses and theories about what appears in this quick camera shot. The amount of species of life on just a single stretch of concrete is mind boggling! Here we can see shellfish, fire coral, a multitude of different sponges, tunicates and a variety of invertebrates that only increases upon closer inspection.

Through something as quick and easy as a camera shot, a scientific story begins to unfold. Any time we can help contribute in the form of scientific documentation, Tranquilo Bay loves to participate, and lately we’ve had some great opportunities to join in on.

Child Citizen Scientist Photographer

Bladi sharing his shot of a hotlips flower.

Tranquilo Bay is a long-time participant of bird counts, particularly Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s where birders all around the world list what species they’ve seen and upload it onto the eBird app for the specified 24-hour period. We also took part in our first iNaturalist Bioblitz this month, we three guides and the six kids old enough to use a camera documenting hundreds of species of land and marine life in all forms, shapes, colors and kingdoms.

By contributing our sightings and photos to the iNaturalist app, spearheaded by National Geographic and California Academy of Sciences, we’re adding to a constantly growing database of flora and fauna that can actually contribute to scientific and biological studies and monitoring. Not to mention we’re taking part in the mapping out of current range and distribution of species as you and more and more iNaturalist users from every corner of earth contribute their observations.

And by the by, this isn’t just a one day a year type thing, anyone can always upload photos of cool life they’ve encountered and often times other iNaturalist contributors can help you figure out what it is if you can’t identify it yourself!

On June 5th, 2020, while the waters of Tranquilo Bay were still morning-calm, I slid into the warm, sparkling Caribbean waters to enter into a coral reef world to document underwater life with my BioBlitz partner of the morning, Patrick Viola.

Patrick, 11 years old, manned the underwater camera and took photos of all the various species that greeted us upon first entering the water. We got the most common species quickly and effortlessly, three-spotted damselfish, schoolmaster, turtle grass, finger coral, long-spined sea urchin. We don’t want to miss anything even something you see so often might hardly notice it anymore, like the ever-plentiful sponge brittle sea stars. We scoured the sea floor, getting close and looking between the feathery fronds of the Atlantic sea plumes which look like underwater vegetation but are actually soft corals and amongst the fronds, were able to search out the beautiful yet elusive flamingo tongue worm!

Screen Shot 2020-06-28 at 1.16.20 PM

Flamingo Tongue and Spotted Moray Eel, photos by Patrick Viola

We moved along slowly, picking out all the many different forms of life from sponges to sea slugs, spaghetti and feather duster worms, sailor’s eyeball alga and donkey dung sea cucumbers! We were excited to see the spotted moray eel was home, poking out from a large and decorated coral head, a toothy grin looking adequately threatening for the photo!    

Citizen Science Bocas del Toro Child Photographer
Israel, shooting ever upward!

The other kids here at Tranquilo Bay participated on more solid ground and hit the trails, taking photos of plants and insects, birds and sloths. Overall, for our first Bioblitz, we’re pretty proud of ourselves here at Tranquilo Bay for ranking in at 286 species photographed and uploaded into the iNaturalist database. But now we’re hooked and we know we can do better, so we’re going to make this something of a regular thing, further illustrating our place on the global map of biodiversity for both fun and rewarding engagement and important citizen science.

Stay tuned for more to come!

Watch As We Encounter Thrilling Diversity Snorkeling In Panama

Lush tropical rainforests abundant with sloths, monkeys, parrots and poison dart frogs.

Along our quiet shoreline, rich mangrove ecosystems support life both above and below the water.

And for the icing on the cake: Tranquilo Bay and Bocas del Toro is home to colorful tropical coral reefs as close as a hop off our dock into sparkling, warm waters, teeming with life.

Come explore with us!

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.

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!