Citizen Science at Tranquilo Bay

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!”

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!    

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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!

Underwater Adventures at Tranquilo Bay

The diversity of Tranquilo Bay is endless.

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 at the Space Coast Birding & Wildlife 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.

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.

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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.

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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.