Searching for Fascinating Wildlife: Cotingas & Stunning Poison Dart Frogs

Life bird! We almost always hear this statement from our guests after observing the Snowy Cotinga for the first time. This elusive bird is one of the rarest species on our list and, therefore, very important in our tours.

Male Snowy Cotinga by Natalia Decastro Gonzalez

The Snowy Cotinga or Carpodectes nitidus is endemic to Central America, restricted to the continental Caribbean side, from northern Honduras to northwestern Panama.

This bird is not easy to find, and its population has declined due to habitat loss throughout the Americas. Bocas del Toro is one of the few places where this species is found in Central America and the only place where it can be seen in Panama.

Less than ten minutes from Tranquilo Bay by boat, we find this cotinga on the northern edge of Popa Island. It likes to perch for somewhat prolonged periods in the emergent trees of the upper canopy of the forest adjoining the island’s mangroves. Sometimes in pairs or solitary and rarely in small groups of up to four individuals.

The cotinga is almost unmistakable; it does not overlap with other white cotingas. However, you may be able to confuse it at first sight with some tityra, similar in size, apart from the dominant white. Still, the facial variances that make them different are noticeable.

Snowy Cotinga by Roger Morales

Males are white at first sight, but upon further inspection, you notice some bluish-grey areas on the crown, nape, scapulars, rump, and tail. The females are generally quite different, much grayer, and have a blackish crown and mantle. Their scapulars and rump have brown coloration, while the neck, chest, and belly are grayish-white. They have a noticeable white eye-ring that contrasts with the dark iris. Male juveniles, as in most birds, can resemble females.

These cotingas are completely frugivorous (fruit feeders). Their favorite trees are from the families: Lauraceae, Loranthaceae, and Moraceae (Ficus). This species may perform micro migrations according to the fruiting of their favorite trees. Males can make sounds but are very rarely heard. There are no published recordings of this species.

Of course, this is not the only bird present in this area. It is also possible to spot toucans, kingfishers, woodpeckers, and mangrove specialties such as Mangroove Cuckoo and Mangroove Warbler (Yellow W.).

But the birds are not the only protagonists of this tour; the famous Strawberry Poison Dart Frog or Oophaga pumilio is also found here. As soon as we turn off the engine and get off the boat, we can hear these tiny and precious frogs sing.

Strawberry Poison Dart Frog or Oophaga pumilio photographed on Isla Popa.
Poison Dart Frog by Nilda Mussi

When the islands separated from the continent around 10,000 years ago, each island developed particular morphologies and sub-speciations in various animals after the last global glaciation. The Strawberry Poison Dart Frog is the one that stands out the most, and this frog species holds the world record for the most extensive variations in its colors. Each island of the Bocas del Toro Archipelago has its morphology and variations; sometimes, they can be red, orange, blue, or yellow, and occasionally green; they can be of different colors simultaneously and be very different from one another. This frog has about 30 different morphs and about 150 variations. Still, you will be able to recognize them because they do not vary in size. All the males emit the same sounds, somewhat similar to the calls of the cicadas but in lower tones.

The frog is also poisonous. It has glands with neurotoxic poison in the skin, which, although they do not represent a danger to people, you should never touch. Its aposematic coloration warns predators of its toxicity, so it has none. It moves about calmly during the day, and the origin of its poison may come from ants and other insects.

Grey and Yellow Strawberry Poison Dart Frog or Oophaga pumilio photographed on Isla Popa.
Poison Dart Frog by Nilda Mussi

These amphibians can be very intelligent; their behavior is impressive. The parents are paternalistic, and both are in charge of caring for the young in their different stages. The female lays between two to five eggs away from the sun, usually on the leaves, near some small body of water. The male fertilizes and moistens them, keeping them alive for the next ten to twelve days. Once the tadpoles are born, the female carries them one by one on her back to bromeliads that could be fifteen meters high. She will return two to three times a week, for six to eight weeks, to lay infertile eggs that will serve as the only food for the tadpoles at this stage of their life.

Strawberry Poison Dart Frog on a leaf photographed on Isla Popa.
Poison Dart Frog by Nilda Mussi

Popa Island is a recommended attraction during your stay in Tranquilo Bay. If you are a serious bird and amphibian watcher or love animals and nature, do not miss meeting the Snowy Cotinga and the Strawberry Poison Dart Frog.

Kayaking near Tranquilo Bay

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Due to Tranquilo Bay’s location in a nearly untouched forest area within the Bocas del Toro archipelago, and the fact that it is surrounded by protected waters that hold an incredible collection of coral and sponges, we have almost an unlimited range of things to do and discover right off of the dock.

One of things we can do is take a kayak into the Caribbean Sea.   We often do this directly from Tranquilo Bay’s dock. It is an excellent summary of Bocas del Toro’s many possibilities.

Panama Birding

We start early to avoid paddling under the harshest sun. We glide over calm waters into a mangrove channel. It is here that we can see some interesting wildlife: from cushion starfishes under our kayaks to the beautiful Snowy Cotinga flirting with the top of the trees; or a Keel- billed or Yellow-throated Toucans flying over our heads in the wider areas of the canal; or the Yellow Mangrove Warbler calling at the dense mangrove edge.

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If we feel like it, we stop at Isla Popa and check for different color morphs of the famous Strawberry poison dart frog, with their green and orange tones, to the light blue legged ones.

After experiencing the richness of our “over the water” world, on the way back we discover what the underwater world has to offer.

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Endless platforms of coral reef covered in life and color, playful shining fishes, countless brittle stars, mysterious feather-dusters, sponges, crustaceans, ascidians are all visible under the ocean. Each of these animals lets you witness their daily life. Textures and shapes curving underwater are a colorful live work of art.

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On the end of our kayak trip, it is a good time to compile and archive our memories of all the amazing things we saw within a kayak distance from Tranquilo Bay.

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Cheepers Spring 2014 Trip Report

Last month we had a nice birding trip with Jim and Cindy from Cheepers. It was their 17th trip to Panama, and for the first time they got to see a good part of the Western Caribbean Slope. We made 3 trips to the mainland, birded about a half-day at Tranquilo Bay and one day on Soropta Canal. In addition to the birding, we did some snorkeling.

Some of the highlights were the 4 lifers Cindy and Jim saw, within the less than 5 days we spent birding and snorkeling together: Nicaraguan Seed-Finch, Snowy Cotinga, a beautiful and very unusual group of Masked Ducks and Black-thighed Grosbeak. in addition to their lifers, some nice birds were two Ornate Hawk-Eagles, a juvenile and an adult, both perched and then flying. What amazing birds!

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Masked Ducks

Panama Birding

Ornated Hawk-Eagle adult (Spizaetus ornatus)

Birdwatching Panama

Juvenile of Ornated Hawk-Eagle (Spizaetus ornatus) in flight

The incredible migration of Turkey Vultures: there were thousands of them gaining altitude in front of us, after spending the night on Bastimentos and Popa Islands. In association with this migration we saw some other raptors such as Broad-wing Hawks, Peregrine Falcons and Plumbeous Kites. All those things were great, but for me, the best thing was to see (in person) the display and mating of the Golden-collared Manakins, just like the video Ramon captured months ago with a Go-Pro camera.

Panama Wildlife

Adult male Golden-collared Manakin (Manacus cerritus)

At the end of their trip we had a total of 220 species (seen and heard).  You can download the list below.

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Snowy Cotinga on the Yard List

Observation Deck

Male Three-wattled Bell Bird

Last Wednesday, I was on the dock with the boys and saw some strange behavior near the tower with a couple of Raptors.  It had rained and the sun had just cracked around 4:00 p. m.  The birds were really starting to move.  Then I heard the call of a Three-wattled Bellbird, and then another one.  These were the first calls of the year, and that was all I could take.  I left the dock quickly and went to get my binoculars to go to the tower.  Boty grabbed some bins and came with me and man was it good.  There was a termite hatch and everything was sallying up off high perches eating the little tidbits.  Boty and I saw Blue Dacnis, Great Kiskadee and Boat-billed flycatchers, Shinning and Green Honeycreepers and a Lineated Woodpecker to name a few.  With all the activity, the parrots began to fly, in a prolonged and raucous chorus.  The pair of raptors flying around strangely were Plumbeous Kites, they must have darted for the termites as well.  The Bellbirds never called again, but I did see one male in flight.  Boty couldn’t take it anymore after watching the boys swimming down at the dock with her binoculars.  So she left to go swim and that is when I struck gold.  First, I saw a white dot, same as always.  I studied before I put up my binoculars because I wanted to be sure, and I was.  Beautiful Snowy Cotinga male right here at Tranquilo Bay.  Only seconds after I put up my bins what looked like a female dropped out of the tree and I never saw her again.  Since it was a drop and flight and I didn’t get a second look, I am not 100% it was a female, but size and markings were right.  Furthermore, she was only a couple of feet from the male on the same clump of branches when she dropped.  Anyhow, the male hung around and I watched him in my bins for more than 20-minutes.  Flying back and forth from several perches in a small area always exposed or just inside the first row of leafs.  We have listed Snowy Cotinga on our tours, but this was the first time on-site.  I was so excited, what a great bird to add to our yard list right here at Tranquilo Bay Eco Adventure Lodge.  The new observation tower has allowed us access to the canopy and it sure has paid off.

Bocas Canopy Tower

Male Snowy Cotinga