Be a Citizen Scientist!

Black-crowned Antshrike

Here at Tranquilo, you can hardly walk from your garden cabina to the lodge for breakfast without encountering something special, be it a beautifully detailed, work-of-art of a caterpillar or a black-crowned antshike beating a succulent grub into submission for easy ingestion. The multitude of life that exists on this island consisting of a mere 24 square miles is extraordinary and, as it carries on all around us, we love not just to observe it but document it as well!

Many of the birdwatchers that come to Tranquilo (and we here at Tranquilo as well) are what has come to be termed as “eBirders”..meaning we have the app, we make the lists and we submit the information.  

The app is called eBird and was developed by Cornell Lab of Ornithology in 2002. By contributing to eBird, we are adding information to a massive online database of bird checklists submitted by more than 420,000 eBirders from all over the world. By contributing a simple checklist of birds identified–say on a short hike or even sitting at your back window–all that’s needed is date, time and location and this information can be added to a database which birders contribute to daily, making eBird the largest biodiversity-related citizen science project in the world.

Bay-breasted Warbler
(winter plumage)

Tranquilo Bay boasts 224 species of birds that, over the course of the year, can be found on our property. Spanning over 200 acres, the majority of Tranquilo Bay is heavily forested and hugged by about a kilometer of mangrove coastline. The birds, insects, mammals and other wildlife we encounter in addition to the lush greenery that supports all this life runs on a fairly cyclical pattern over the course of the year. The neotropical migratory birds pass through Tranquilo Bay in the spring and fall and they rely on the fruiting of various trees and bushes that help fuel their journey. The local resident birds base their nesting around the seasonal rains and the fruiting and flowering of the forest for the abundance of food required to raise little nestlings. By keeping track of these birds, their abundance and their activities, we are learning more about the importance of Tranquilo Bay as a refuge for the life that exists here, and even that which is just passing through.

Interesting and informative trends from the eBird database can be extrapolated through bird abundance and distribution at a variety of spatial and temporal scales. This information, in turn, can give biologists and scientific researchers information on range and abundance, migratory patterns, range expansions, all of which can help us in ways including determination of ecological requirements and habitat management for species of concern.

Baltimore Oriole
(winter plumage)

Migratory birds are especially at risk in the face of the developing world. These birds make the bi-annual journey from north to south and back again as they spend their winters here in the tropics where food is in abundance. They head back north for the spring nesting season in the US and Canada’s temperate forests where the summer days grow long, giving ample time for the birds to set up territories, build a nest and feed their young as they constantly clamor for food. At the end of the nesting season, those recently fledged youngsters have a huge journey ahead of them and many trials along the way, including finding food and safe places to rest.

Chestnut-sided Warbler
(winter plumage)

So while we monitor what birds are coming through, how many, we’re connecting ourselves here at Tranquilo Bay to the wider network. Birds don’t see state lines or country borders. They go where the food is. They rely on a safe patch of forest they rested at in years past to be there again this year. Life is unstable for these long-distance migrants. By helping keep track of them when they’re in our corner of the world, we’re helping detail more about them which might help in their future preservation.  

Another app, as if you don’t have enough already, that I really enjoy is iNaturalist. This is another data-collection app and with it you are not just documenting birds, but ALL things living, that includes plantlife, insects, mammals, trees, mushrooms, everything. This is another global database and it is developed by California Academy of Science. This is especially fun for identifying whatever lizard or strange caterpillar you may have gotten a photo of, the app has a sort of “facial recognition” which can help automatically identify the creature and if that doesn’t get you down to species level, there are naturalists and experts who can weigh in. I’ve enjoyed learning the identification of many species of moths and butterflies and various flowering plants that I couldn’t determine until I posted it on iNaturalist. And, once again, this is citizen science in action, as if I’m contributing to the biological inventory of this part of Bocas del Toro and you can too!

Relatioships in nature

Many of us have heard the name of a bird with the word “ant” in it: Antbird, Antwren Antshrike, just to mention some.  I imagine the first thought of a non-birder, is that they feed on ants, but the truth is different.  It’s related to a wonderful strategy that some of these birds, with the Ant word in their name, have evolved to take advantage of a particular group of ants: the Army Ants.

Panama Wildlife

Army ants moving through the forest.

Army ants are extremely successful in their hunting strategies.  They disperse all over an area of the tropical forest, and “cover” everything (ground, trunks, branches), and all the living creatures that encounter them try to avoid them, as fast as they can  (jumping, flying…), it’s a race for their lives. During the moments of craziness i’s when the antbirds show up and “collect” whatever they can, before these specimens fall into the army ants’ control. Obviously some other birds, without the “Ant” word on their name follow or take advantage of the army ants swarms too.

Birding Panama

Chestnut-backed Antbird (Poliocrania exsul), a common forest understory species, that is heard more often than seen, can be an opportunistically species that follows the army ants, while the swarm passes through its territory.

This is one more example of the importance of every single creature has within the ecosystems, a little disturbance can cause the reduction of an insect population, or the absence of it can easily be link with the drop of a bird or a mammal population in the same area.

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!

Caterpillar of the Tetrio Sphinx Moth

One look at this magnificently showy caterpillar gives warning to any potential predator by way of its brightly patterned body: Don’t eat me, I’m toxic!

Wildlife PanamaThe frangipani hornworm, also called plumeria caterpillar, can be found crawling around on the clean, elegant branches of its namesake the plumeria tree (genus Frangipani). Oblivious to the world, this munching on the broad, fleshy leaves that form clusters at the end of otherwise bare branches.

The flowering plumeria tree might be best known for that gloriously delightful fragrance that wafts off of the famous Hawaiian flower necklaces (called “leis”) made with strings of these crisp, beautiful blossoms. While plumerias are native to various parts of the world, the white plumeria we have growing here at Tranquilo is indeed native to Central America.  

Birding Panama

The frangipani caterpillars hatch from clusters of 50-100 eggs lain under the broad, fleshy leaves of the plumeria which provide the caterpillars with an ample supply of food which they waste no time getting right to work on.

The leaves of the plumeria produce a white, toxic latex that the caterpillar is unaffected by and can sequester into its body as defense. This “aposematic” or warning coloration signifies that this creature is dangerous to eat while allowing it to go about its showy business in full view without fear of attack. Humans would be wise to leave them alone as well, not just for the fact of their toxicity, but they’re also known to bite and the small hairs on their bodies can cause irritation when inadvertently rubbed in one’s eyes.

As the tiny caterpillars methodically eat their way through leaf after leaf they can, in their efforts combined, ultimately ingest the entirety of leaves on the host tree, leaving bare sticks in their wake–in as little as a week! While this might seem as if these caterpillars are a pest and are harming the tree, this is a natural cycle created by co-evolution, the tree is not dead and the leaves and flowers will return, so don’t fear! Once the caterpillars have gorged themselves, reaching a hefty length of about six inches, they will descend to the ground below and bury themselves beneath the leaf litter.

So what comes next? From the ground emerges the Tertio Sphynx Moth, an aerodynamically formed, fast-flying moth from a family known for its ability to hover, allowing it to easily feed at flowers. What’s interesting is that, upon hatching, the moth is of course attracted to the delicious scent of the oleiferous plumeria flowers above. Well, wouldn’t you know that the tree that this caterpillar not long ago obliterated in its quest to gorge itself silly has now fooled the resulting moth into searching for nectar from a flower that produces not a lick of the sugary liquid! In fact, that intoxicating smell actually comes from scent nodules below the bud. Nonetheless, in its probing, the sphinx moth is carrying out the act of pollination that the plumeria tree needs to reproduce.

Just yet another wild and complex drama in the wonderful world that is the tropics!

 

One of those special moments in nature

Birding Panama

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

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

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

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

Canopy Tower Bocas

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

 

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

Hummingbird or insect?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

A very particular group of plants: Zamia

Cycad plants are found in tropical and subtropical areas around the world. Panama has the most diverse group of cycad plant in the Neotropics. The species found in Panama have a cylindrical trunk, with leaves that grow directly from the trunk, forming a “crown” of evergreen leaves, and a plastic texture, that sometimes could be confused with ferns or palms.

Within the forest of Bocas del Toro, we frequently find this plant defoliated by the larvae of the White-tipped Cycadian (Eumaeus godartii). The larvae can eat the entire plant, but do not kill it.

Eumaeus godartii

Larvae of the White-tipped Cycadian (Eumaeus godartii)

Cycads are gymnosperms (naked seeds), the unfertilized seeds are open to the air to be pollinated. Cones are the reproductive organs of the cycads and are composed by highly modified leaves.

Panama Flora

Female cones of a Zamia plant, at Tranquilo Bay grounds, Bastimentos Island.

Cycad plants are females or males; female cone carried ovules, and every male cone (is smaller in diameter, compared with the female) carries several pollen capsules. There are cases of cycad plants changing sex, but never producing male and female cones at the same time.

Cycad Zamia Male Cone

Male cones of a Zamia plant – Tranquilo Bay, Bastimentos Island

In the past the pollination of cycads was thought to be completed by the wind, but its been proven that it is completed by insects.

Thousands of this plant grow on the white sand beaches of Bastimentos Island.  Here it was observed and has been reported by researchers an unusual occurrence of salt water tolerance.  Cycad seeds can float in the water, allowing the plant to disperse from island to island within the archipelago – this was observed in this group of plants around 2004 in Bocas del Toro.