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.

Local Bocas Naturalist Guide Encounters Banded Royal Terns

The North American Bird Banding Program was created to study bird movements, survival, and behavior. Since 1904, 60 million birds have been banded in North America, representing hundreds of species. More than 4 million bands have been recovered. The program is under the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the Canadian Wildlife Service. Yet, the most crucial collaborator in the chain is the curious observer (located anywhere in the world), who in the field detects a banded bird and makes the respective report on the web: www.reportband.gov.

The largest seabird colony in Virginia, USA, is a small island dominated by tens of thousands of nesting Royal Terns each spring. It is home to one of the banding sites researchers use to discover where these terns travel in winter.

Royal terns are an example of how migratory birds connect us all to remote places. Yet the habitats on which Royal Terns and other seabirds depend are threatened by numerous factors, including climate change, human disturbance, and the proliferation of predators.

Records of Royal Terns reported with bands in Central America are very scarce. Still, as the number of birders and the curiosity to observe details grows, this could increase annual records in Central America.

While on several birding tours along the western Caribbean slope offered through Tranquilo Bay Eco-Adventure Lodge, that included the San San-Pond Sak Wetland (International Ramsar Site 611), one of our guides, Roger Morales, has been on the trail of several individuals banded from Near Hampton, Hampton City, Virginia, USA (36°59’30.0 “N 76°18’30.0 “W), by Dr. James D. Fraser.

Roger’s first encounter with a banded bird was on December 4, 2021, in the vicinity of the Changuinola River with a Royal Tern who had a white band and black numbers and code 349. Then the next day, he finds a group of Royal Terns. One of those individuals had a band with code 93C. In Roger’s search to know where these terns came from, he finds www.reportband.gov. He reports his sightings. These reports become vital records for scientific studies to learn the winter movements and distance traveled as part of their yearly migratory journey.

Roger’s next observation happened on December 12, 2021, of an individual with code 46N. The first two observed were banded in July 2020; perhaps it was their first or second migratory journey through Central America, whereas the last observed had been tagged in July 2021, which meant its first trip to the Central American Caribbean.

Three months following the first observations, Roger finds a large group of Royal Terns on another Tranquilo Bay tour in the Changuinola River. This group included two banded individuals. And as a more incredible surprise, he detects that they were two of those he previously found: codes 93C and 46N. Maybe these individuals spent their winter on the coasts of Bocas del Toro.

During the following weeks, on March 11, we found bird 93C again in the same site of the Changuinola River. On March 13, in the Sixaola River (within Ramsar site 611), we found bird 46N next to a new marked tern with code 0M1. The distance between each reporting site is less than 20 km in a straight line.

This continues to be exciting for our visitors. We enjoy our ability to contribute to the knowledge of these species throughout. Learning about their life history and how these terns have managed to travel approximately 3,125 km straight from their nesting or hatching site to the coasts of Bocas del Toro.

We will continue contributing citizen science data to support researchers and the marine migrant species that visit Central America year after year.

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?

Come Along On The Awesome Whisper Ecological Trail Adventure

Mangrove Creek Isla Popa

Following breakfast, we will leave the facility in a support boat. We take a 15-minute ride across Bastimentos National Marine Park over to the backside of Isla Popa.

In kayaks, (although we skipped them in this video) we will meander through the glassy calm waters of Enrique’s Creek through lush green vegetation. We will paddle through a mangrove creek over to the Whisper Ecological Trail, following the jungle’s edge. The mangrove forest we glide through includes Red, White, and Tea mangroves.


The Tea Mangrove or *Pelliciera rhizophorae* belongs to the “true mangroves” and is fascinating, endangered, and rare. This location is one of the last coastlines in Central America to support this magnificent and unique mangrove. It is called Tea Mangrove because of its leaves which contain tannins and other substances found in tea.

At the beginning of the Miocene Era (about 23 million years ago), Pelliciera rhizophorae had a wide distribution in the Caribbean. Its distribution was reduced by the early Pliocene Era (about 5 million years ago). This reduction in range appears to be related to changes in soil salinity within the mangrove ecosystems, rising seawater levels, and increasing competition from other more tolerant species. There are genetic differences in the leaves and flowers between the Tea Mangrove growing along the Pacific Coast and the same species in the Caribbean.


Poison Dart Frog Isla Popa

Many birds feed near the water’s edge. This jungle is home to trogons, toucans, rufous and green kingfishers, and various frogs and reptiles. As we walk, we listen to the soundtrack for this adventure that includes relaxing nature sounds, soothing water sounds, and birds singing.

Family at waterfall

We find insects, endemic amphibians, and rare reptiles along the trail. It leads to waterfalls and we traverse through rocks up to a small creek. After wading through the spring water, we make our way back to our kayaks as we check out both the flora and fauna this trail offers.

Our support boat will be waiting at the creek’s mouth to return to Tranquilo Bay.

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)!

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.