Seabirds and Frogs in Panama

Seabirds were the reason for my Panama trip, the original excuse if you will, but the agenda had expanded to so much more than that. How could I visit islands off the historic port town of Portobelo without visiting the UNESCO World Heritage ruins in town? How could I go to Bocas del Toro, an area famed as the epicenter of color variation in the frog I studied in graduate school, and not look for frogs? And how could I ignore the newly opened Biomuseo in Panama City that my seabird collaborator had been toiling over the last decades? The answer was I couldn’t. By the time I landed in Panama City, our survey of seabird nesting along Panama’s Caribbean coast was the glue that held together a rather complex and multi-purposed itinerary.

Panama City

George Angehr’s boyish grin greeted Jim Kushlan and me at Tocumen International Airport. George, the country’s birding authority and author of The Birds of Panama and A Bird-Finding Guide to Panama, and Jim, waterbird expert and author of several books on that topic, had begun this country-wide seabird survey nearly a decade ago in the Gulf of Panama. I joined the team in 2013 as we finished the Pacific coast surveys in the Gulf of Chiriqui (see results at Angehr_et_al_2014). The current trip was phase one of the Caribbean coast surveys but first, a stop at the Biomuseo.

The Worlds Collide gallery in Panama City's new Biomuseo.

The Worlds Collide gallery in Panama City’s new Biomuseo.

George, Biomuseo’s accomplished Curator of Exhibitions, had given us a tour of this anticipated attraction on our last visit, when the building was nothing more than a concrete frame and the displays still ideas in George’s head, represented only by a few sketches and models on his desk. Designed by famed architect Frank Gehry, the completed structure loomed on the horizon before us, appearing more as a child’s lego creation than a state-of-the-art museum. We made our way under the apparently haphazard but in fact strategically placed assortment of orange, blue, green and red roofs and into the Gallery of Biodiversity where a larger than life Golden Frog decorated the windows and a periodic table of species spanned the hallway. The museum celebrates Panama’s natural history – its biodiversity, its geology, its human history and its role as a land bridge between North and South America. A theater room, where storm clouds gathered above while a whale shark swam below and myriad plants, animals and habitats flashed all around, guided us through a Pacific-to-Caribbean tour of Panama’s habitats. Another hallway depicted the country’s geologic formation and lead on to my favorite gallery – Worlds Collide. Life-sized statues of animals ranging from tiny poison frogs to an enormous Woolly Mammoth spiraled from opposite directions to a pinnacled meeting in the center of the room, representing the exchange of species between North and South America as the two continents were joined by the isthmus of Panama. It was humbling to stand below this archway of modern and pre-historic animals, which I had previously seen in miniature, barely taking up George’s desk corner.

Portobelo and the Canal Region

The next morning we left the chaos of Panama City behind, driving through small towns, rural areas and forested segments that mosaicked into the Portobelo National Park. The seabird survey was our first order of business so we headed to the dock at La Guayra where boatmen swarmed us, to book our transport to the tourist destination of Isla Grande. They backed away quickly when we announced that we weren’t interested in their usual 10-minute putter across the protected bay. We wanted to visit Farallon Sucio, an isolated rock, 20+ miles out into the discouragingly choppy seas. After much discussion and negotiation, one boatman and his mate finally agreed to take us. Life jackets were not optional, nor was staying dry. Waves began pounding us as soon as we left the harbor and we bounced painfully against the boat’s wooden benches. Fortunately our boatmen were skilled in managing the 6-foot swells and we arrived at our destination without incident.

There were second hand reports of bird nesting on Farallon Sucio from half a century ago, but the islets had never really been censused before. A little lighthouse sat at the highpoint of Farallon Sucio and as we drew near, we could see Magnificent Frigatebirds and Brown Boobies circling it. Our boatman tucked into the comparative protection of the leeward side of the island. As we bobbed up and down, Jim and George counted 105 booby nests while I photo documented the scene. When we asked if we could peak around the end of the island, just to be sure, the boatman assured us that we would flip if we did. We opted to keep the boat upright and headed back to the harbor instead, count in hand.

A black vulture on fort ruins at Portobelo; the customs house is in the background.

A black vulture on fort ruins at Portobelo; the customs house is in the background.

For the next day and a half, we indulged in history. This section of coast was one of the richest and most important in the Caribbean during the 16th and 17th centuries, with nearly all of Spain’s gold and silver passing through the customs house at Portobelo. This of course also made the area a target for pirates, privateers, and the naval forces of Spain’s opponents. Many a gory attack were aimed at the settlements in the region. Nombre de Dios was at one time known as the “treasure house of the world”. It fell to Sir Francis Drake in 1596 resulting in the port being moved to the more easily defended site at Portobelo. Despite grand forts to safeguard this new center of wealth, Portobelo too suffered many an attack. The most famous was led by Sir Henry Morgan in 1668 wherein he not only looted the city, but also held it ransom until the governor of Panama City on the opposite side of the isthmus paid heavily to save his Caribbean port from complete destruction. It proved a pointless ransom payment as only a few years later Captain Morgan also attacked Fuerte San Lorenzo, which defended the wet season trade route for Spanish wealth at the mouth of the Chagres River to the west, and Panama City itself. Eventually, Portobelo and the trade route defended by Fuerte San Lorenzo declined in significance after attacks by British Admiral Vernon in the 1700’s. Little of the region’s wealth and treachery of the past remain today.

Nombre de Dios is now a quaint fishing village with little tourist activity. Portobelo is also a small town, and a rather depressed one. The Royal Customs House, rebuilt by Spain in 1998, serves as the local museum, but one that is greatly in need of attention. The welcome video was current and informative, but the displays themselves left much to be desired. There were model replicas of the forts at Portobelo, of which one had more numbered features than there were labels on the corresponding key. The other model included a dead beetle with legs straight up in the air, seeming to serve as a replacement boat in one of the waterways. Another dimly lit room held a jumble of dusty relics that seemed to have no order nor story, simply items that were dredged up from somewhere and put on display. Outside the museum, the ruins themselves consisted mostly of mowed lawn, a row of repositioned canons, and a wall foundation adorned with a line of resident vultures and stray dogs. Sadly, this was a polished contrast to the surrounding moat of sewage and deteriorated homes.

The nearby Iglesia de San Felipe was much better maintained, appearing to be the town’s main source of income undoubtedly due to its famous Black Christ statue. The row of street vendors lining the path to its entrance offered a selection of wooden rosaries for sale, as well as pink and purple stuffed monkeys hanging among the sacred beads. Inside, the rather fierce-looking Black Christ figure was honored with an array of lit votive candles and the occasional worshiper, mostly women with heads bowed in prayer. A calm and pensive scene on my spring visit, this same figure apparently draws thousands of pilgrims from all over Panama to an elaborate and boisterous festival every October.

We ventured a couple hours away by car to Fuerte San Lorenzo, the fort that had defended the river trade route at the mouth of the Chagres River. The remaining ruins at Fuerte San Lorenzo held much more appeal than those at Portobelo from both a touristic and nature perspective. Nestled within the San Lorenzo National Park, we heard Howler Monkeys along the forested drive in and a tree laden with oropendula nests greeted us at the parking area. The ruins themselves were on a cliff overlooking the mouth of the Chagres River, banked by forest as far an I could see. In the opposite direction, lay rocky beaches and the ocean beyond. Many of the old stone walls of the fort remained, as well as a dry moat, cannons, a couple of towers, archways and a line of long, skinny rooms within. The site was idyllic enough to be booked for events and upon my visit, caterers were in the process of breaking down an elaborate banquet and its associated tent.

Reaching the site required driving across the Panama Canal. We stopped at the impressive, new visitor center at the canal to view the construction of the enlarged locks; but for me, the drive under the old locks was much more exciting! George expertly navigated through a maze of roads, stop signs, parking lots and guard houses until we drove onto a bridge that paralleled the heavy metal gates separating us from the waters within the Canal’s locks. There was something thrilling about being so close and under this impressive structure with water leaking through the seams, a reminder of what lay on the other side.

Bocas del Toro – Isla Colon

Early the next morning we boarded a flight to Bocas del Toro, a collection of islands at the western end of Panama’s Caribbean coast. From the airplane above, the islands appeared laden with forest – rainforest in the interior and mangrove forest around the edges, with the occasional wave-lapped beach tucked within this or that cove. Arriving in Bocas town on Isla Colon though, these essential tropical paradise ingredients were missing. The town’s charms as an intermingled backpacker hub, expatriate resident and local fishing community did eventually grow on me, but it initially felt disappointingly gray and developed as our taxi ferried us and another party from the small airport a few blocks into the “downtown” area. There would be no morning forest hikes from our hotel, nor were there any gardens in sight to simulate the experience. A jeep for rent caught our eye and in no time we had claimed it and ventured well beyond city limits.

A color morph of Strawberry Poison-dart Frog in Isla Colon; note the tadpole on the back.

A color morph of Strawberry Poison-dart Frog in Isla Colon; note the tadpole on the back.

It didn’t take long to trade Bocas town’s cluster of buildings for pastures and forest alongside the only cross-island road. As we hit a particularly forested patch, I could hear the insect-like pulsing calls of the frog I sought. I leapt out of the car nearly before we’d stopped, rushing toward a mixed patch of abandoned banana plantation and encroaching forest where several Strawberry Poison-dart Frogs (Oophaga pumilio) could be heard. I walked in circles, scanning fallen logs and tree trunks as I homed in on one set of calls. Finally my eyes settled on the nickel-sized singer perched waist high on a tree. The frog was bright yellow, with a greenish back punctuated with black spots and orangy-brown mottling on the legs. It was beautiful! Despite knowing that I was looking for extreme color variation though, it took me a moment to recognize this as the same species I’d studied in Costa Rica where all the frogs were nicknamed “rana de blue jean” (the blue jean frog) for their red bodies and blue legs.

I spent the next couple of days exploring one forest patch after another, gawking at the variation even within this one basic color morph. Some were almost all yellow, some more green, some had spots that seemed to fuse into stripes and one even had blue and gray mottled legs! This frog has been described as one of the most variable vertebrate species on the planet thanks in part to this color variation, but also because they differ in their toxins (which they accumulate from the ants and mites they eat) and, as I noted in my master’s research, in their calls. It was a treat for me to finally observe some of this color variation first-hand! I did tear away from my frog-filled forest patches long enough to explore the rest of the island as well – lunch at the popular Restaurante Yarisnori on Playa Boca del Drago, watching Montezuma Oropendolas swoop in and out of their hanging nests, and a waterside drive along the island’s most impressive beach – Playa Bluff. Not only was Playa Bluff stunningly beautiful with its endless yellow sands and crashing waves against a forested backdrop, but it also serves as an important nesting beach for Leatherback and Hawskbill Sea Turtles.

I can’t say I had my fill of Isla Colon’s frogs, but it was time to return to our seabird surveys. Early the next morning veteran boatman Sebastian Castillo tossed our camping gear under a tarp at the front of his “panga” and off we went. Our first destination was Swan’s Cay, a popular day trip stop for tourists north of Isla Colon. As we pulled up, Red-billed Tropicbirds streamed their long elegant tails across the lush foliage like brilliant white kites as they flew to and from their nests tucked in cliffside burrows and niches. It was no wonder that this cay was a tourist attraction! But beyond being breathtakingly beautiful, it is also the only known nesting site for Red-billed Tropicbirds in Panama. We could see nine tropicbird nests, as well as 21 Brown Booby nests, which had not previously been known to nest there.

Red-billed tropicbird nesting at Swan Cay.

Red-billed tropicbird nesting at Swan Cay.

Brown booby chick and parents at Swan Cay.

Brown booby chick and parents at Swan Cay.

We continued to Cayos Tigre, a series of little rocky islands ~25 miles southeast of Bocas town north of Peninsula Valiente on the mainland. Audubon’s Shearwaters had twice been documented nesting on these islands, the last time several decades ago. The islets appeared inaccessible, particularly given the prevailing choppy waters, but shearwaters nest within burrows so surveys from the boat wouldn’t do. After assessing our options, Sebastian chose a spot where he could safely pull up close to the rocky shoreline and before we could debate who would go ashore, Jim had already cleared the bow and landed.

Jim surveying shearwater nests on Cayos Tigre.

Jim surveying shearwater nests on Cayos Tigre.

He disappeared into the brush for several minutes before reappearing, arms covered in mud and with reports that this was indeed a nesting island but that the chicks had already fledged. There were at least 50 previously active burrows but given that the chicks were already gone, we couldn’t collect a complete count. Unable to do more than verify Audubon Shearwater nesting at this site, the only one known for Panama, we continued on to our final destination – Isla Escudo de Veraguas, an additional 25 miles further to the southeast and beyond view of the mainland.

Isla Escudo de Veraguas

Sebastian pulled into Isla Escudo at high speed, expertly swerving between the main island and its surrounding mangrove channels. The ride was exhilarating, and the scene idyllic. The blue waters were so clear that colorful reef and associated fish could be seen below, perfect sandy beaches glimmered from coves on the main island, and beyond were an assortment of smaller, jungle-topped islands. These islets had clearly eroded over the centuries to various sizes and shapes, many shrinking beyond the will of their vegetative cover, which stubbornly refused to desist and now hung in mats around the edges like oversized toupees. Between the thrilling ride and the sensational scenery, it surreally felt like some perfectly executed Disneyland experience.

A "rancho" on Isla Escudo.

A “rancho” on Isla Escudo.

We arrived at the main, somewhat populated beach where a few members of the Ngöbe–Buglé tribe had established “ranchos” that they inhabited during the fishing season – wooden platforms below thatched-roofs at the most basic design, with varying degrees of improvements starting from there. As a governmentally-protected area, there are no permanent residents but some of these fishermen stay for several months at a time. Our landing drew a large proportion of the current residents down to the beach, as well as the wildlife warden we’d come to collect and the boat party that brought him from the mainland. An entourage accompanied us in the warden’s delivery boat from this intermittent village to an uninhabited beach a few mangrove channels down. A trio of boys followed me down the beach, showing off their ability to rapidly dig after and catch ghost crabs in the sand with their machetes, while the rest of us assessed the camping situation. Coconuts were cleared from below the palms, tent sites were allocated, our gear transferred to the beach, and eventually the second boat and its crowd embarked, leaving only us and our wildlife warden Eric behind.

Unaware that he was spending more than one night on the island, Eric had been sent by the national environmental agency to accompany us on our 3-day, 2-night stay. The agency lacks the resources for its own patrol boats and is only able to monitor this biologically important site by accompanying visiting groups such as ours. Isla Escudo is 10.5 miles from the mainland and has been separated for 9,000 years, sufficient time to become biologically distinctive with endemic species and sub-species that have genetically differentiated from both those on the mainland and on other islands. After setting up camp under the palm trees, we headed out to complete our bird counts and begin exploring this special place.

It didn’t take long to survey the several offshore islets supporting 58 Brown Booby nests. It was getting late in the day though, so instead of searching for frogs we decided to seek one of the island’s endemics – the critically endangered Pygmy Three-Toed Sloth (Bradypus pygmaeus). Weighing half of its mainland counterpart (5.5 – 7.5 Ibs), these miniature sloths are most easily found in the mangrove forests. Having assisted with many pygmy sloth projects in his 30+ years of working with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Sebastian was adept at finding them. He pointed several out in the trees above that we could barely spot even with his assistance. I moved to the bow of the boat and was craning my neck for a better view of a shadow high in the trees, hoping to make it into the sloth that Sebastian promised when Sebastian started chuckling.

Pygmy Sloth clinging to a mangrove tree on Isla Escudo.

Pygmy Sloth clinging to a mangrove tree on Isla Escudo.

“Well,” he announced, “I don’t think I can get you a closer view than this!”

“Really?” I asked in despair as I strained to see, much less photograph, the animal above.

Sebastian laughed, “Behind you.”

I turned and found myself at eye level with a napping sloth in the branches mere feet in front of me. Sebastian let out a long, low whistle and the sloth came to life. It wasn’t exactly speedy, but for a sloth it was a downright energetic jerk of its head from resting on its arm to staring straight at us. It scanned the horizon before returning its visage to its previously hidden position. Sebastian whistled again and the sloth repeated this motion. I turned to Sebastian, baffled.

“It’s their mating call,” Sebastian grinned.

I was up at the crack of dawn the next day, exploring the woods behind camp. Distinctive island forms of the Blue-Gray Tanager, Bay Wren, and Golden-collared Manakin, as well as the endemic Escudo Hummingbird flitted through the canopy around me. Strawberry Poison-dart Frog calls filled the air and upon searching, I found several displaying Escudo’s color form – bright red above, deep blue below and pale blue under the chin.

Isla Escudo color morph of Strawberry Poison-dart Frog.

Isla Escudo color morph of Strawberry Poison-dart Frog.

We went to a neighboring beach in quest of a trail that would take us deeper into the forest. One enterprising fisherman at this locale claimed we needed a guide to not get lost and offered his services. He wouldn’t state a price though and as negotiations got complicated, I decided it would be best if we didn’t have a guide urging us fast forward anyway. I wanted to go slow with many photographic stops, so we declined his services and moved toward the trailhead. Not to be dissuaded, Santiago, as the Ngöbe fisherman’s name proved to be, raced ahead for his rubber boots and machete – just to show us where the trail started he claimed. As I feared, he nimbly bounded across the treacherous line of rough planks and unhewn round trunks, sometimes visible above the water and sometimes not, that served as a boardwalk through the deep, boot-stealing mud. A pair of wrens tussled across the trail and an Escudo Hummingbird made an appearance, but Santiago plowed forward, hollering for us to follow. I was becoming annoyed with our forced guide who seemed not to understand the idea of quiet wildlife viewing. He could prod all he wanted, I simply stopped with no intention of moving forward when I found my first group of frogs. Santiago watched me curiously as I chased my frog of choice around a tree trunk, macro lens in hand as I shuffled through the mud on my knees. After a while, he grabbed a stick and dropped to the ground beside me. To my surprise, he deftly wrangled first one frog then another into view of my lens, gently posing them with his stick based on my limited Spanish instruction. He proved to be an ideal photo assistant and when I raced up the next hill to photograph a Lovely Poison-arrow Frog (Phyllobates lugubris) that someone else had found, he was right at my heals.

My new frog species disappeared into a blanket of darkness beneath the brush and as I adjusted my camera setting to accommodate, the sky darkened a few shades.

“Donde es la sol (Where is the sun)?” I attempted in my basic Spanish.

Santiago responded in a rapid paragraph that was well beyond my Spanish capabilities. I interpreted the first part to mean that it was about to rain, but was he really asking if I wanted to drink a soda?

“Bebida?” I asked in disbelief.

He shook his head and pointed at himself, “Dinero?”

It became clear; he was wondering if I was going to pay him. While the circumstances surrounding his so-called employment hadn’t played out as I would have preferred, I had already decided I would surely pay him something for his great help. I nodded in reassurance.

To my surprise, after my affirmation, Santiago leapt up and ran further along the trail. There was no time to ponder this action because at that moment, a rumble of thunder brought with it a monsoonal downpour. I pulled out my tiny umbrella and hunched over my camera to protect it from the rain. I felt something heavy sweep across my umbrella as it got even darker. Baffled, I peered up and found Santiago building a little hut around me out of large palm fronds. I marveled that he probably would have run back to refuge under his hut instead had I answered negatively. I was glad I hadn’t, as his makeshift rain shelter made a difference.

The rest of our stay remained dry (well, during daylight hours anyway) as we explored the island’s forest, beaches, mangroves and surrounding waters. Sir Francis Drake and his men were apparently so impressed by Escudo that they spent nearly two weeks on the island in 1596, though it ultimately led to Drake’s demise as dysentery from drinking the river water in Escudo is thought to be what led to his death and burial off Portobelo not longer after. The island must have been an incredible sight for these men. It was still impressive now to us first-timers, but both Sebastian and his first mate, a former fisherman at this site, lamented the fact that even in their 20-30 years of coming to this island, they had seen huge declines in the wildlife as the area has been over-fished and hunted. Sebastian said when he was growing up, they never harvested under-sized fish, wouldn’t even consider taking lobster under a pound and always released females with eggs. Now though, despite the island’s protected status, everything seemed to be fair game to the locals. Eric and his colleague wardens only get to monitor when accompanying trips like ours, and appear to have no law enforcement capacity. We found fisherman in a traditional dugout (carved from a single trunk) collecting their very modern plastic gill net from atop a coral reef within one of the mangrove channels. Weights on the net smashed up against the corals and every few feet along the net, a fish of some size and variety struggled helplessly, ensnared in the small mesh. All Eric could do was tell these men that this was against the law.

Newly untethered green iguana, too weak to escape.

Newly untethered green iguana, too weak to escape.

By happenstance, we later ran across the same fisherman at their rancho on one of the beaches. They had kept all the fish regardless of size from their net on the reef, and had a green iguana tied to their hut for some later meal. Eric released the iguana, too weak to run to the forest for cover, took photos of all the atrocities and sat down for another long conservation education talk with the fishermen. A talk Sebastian figured wouldn’t make a difference.

“People here know what is and isn’t allowed,” Sebastian said, “They know the rules. It’s just that there have always been fish, and lobsters, and iguanas here for them to catch and eat. They don’t believe that someday there might not be.”

And looking at the giant cooler filled with large fish in the main fishing village where we stopped to buy some for dinner, it was hard to believe that these might be smaller or fewer than what was here in the past. But a large yet out of season lobster in a bucket by the cooler and the carcasses from slain sharks just off the beach, verified that more conservation efforts were needed. Fortunately, Eric seemed tireless, lagging behind for yet another low-key but powerful talk with the offenders.

Isla Bastimentos

We basked in Escudo’s brilliance as long as we could our last day, but finally retraced our Disney-esque voyage through the mangrove channels and away, eventually arriving at Tranquilo Bay’s dock at the south end of Isla Bastimentos. It was a well-built, sturdy dock with clear views of coral reef directly below and forest or ocean vistas in every direction. Jim Kimball and Jay Viola, owner operators of the Tranquilo Bay Eco Adventure Lodge along with Jim’s wife Renee, bounded down the boardwalk, emerging from within the mangrove forest. They were dressed in work clothes and streaked in mud but their enthusiasm was unsullied. Ebullient phrases tumbled from their lips in an unsynchronized duet of sorts with Jay offering to show George their resident Mangrove Cuckoo, while Jim Kimball inquired about our camping trip, and both began to tell us about our new lodging and activity options. In no time us and our copious gear were whisked down the boardwalk, up a forested hill, past the greeting dogs, and to our individual cabanas where we were left to settle with promises of continued conversation at cocktail hour.

I’d barely opened my first bag when a brilliant Bronzy Hermit hummingbird lured me to my cabin’s broad verandah. Hummingbird and butterfly plants were thoughtfully planted around each of the six private cabins to ensure a constant show. This was just one example of the attention to detail at Tranquilo Bay. Jim and Jay themselves had spent five years constructing each and every structure on the property, mostly with materials imported from their home state of Texas. Their efforts paid off. These were some of the most solid and well-designed buildings and walkways I’d seen in Panama, and they certainly boasted the best flushing toilets I’d encountered in the country!

Cocktail hour proved to be a communal event on the second floor of the main building where it’s position in the upper reaches of the canopy and row of hummingbird feeders ensured vigorous defense by resident Rufous-tailed Hummingbirds. The owners’ children dined inside while we, their parents and eager staff naturalists Ramón and Natalia visited on the porch. We were the only guests the first night, but as others arrived, this ritual was maintained. The vibe was good. It was a relaxed atmosphere with plenty of opportunity to mingle with other parties but no pressure to do so, and every group was entertained by one of the owners or naturalists at all times. Meals were served family style with the same relaxed ambience. Just like the resort itself, the food wasn’t overly extravagant but it was solid and tasty with attention to details. The first night when my dietary preferences had not previously been known but became apparent as I picked around the bacon in my salad, Renee ran to the kitchen to alert the chef. By the time the main course arrived, I had piping hot vegetarian lasagne alongside everyone else’s pork.

The true highlight, of course, was the lodge’s setting on Isla Bastimentos, surrounded by Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park and other nearby sites with some of the most pristine forest in the area. Neighboring Isla Popa was on my list to visit based on reports of its impressive forest, and I was pleased to learn from Jim and Jay that it also happened to have a site with high poison-dart frog color diversity.

We started off early the first morning to explore, specifically looking for birds and frogs. Jim Kimball steered our boat through mangrove channels where toucans and parrots squawked above, and Natalia and Ramón deftly identified dark specks in the sky and surrounding vegetation as this or that bird. Eventually we landed at a small dock on Isla Popa that led up a trail past a family’s farmstead and into the forest beyond. Apparently the owner of this property had waved Jim’s boat down several years ago as he’d boated by while looking for birds. The man told Mr. Kimball that his property had beautiful forest and many colors of frogs that Jim’s guests might want to see. This proved true and together they developed a trail that the farmer maintains in exchange for entrance fees that Jim pays when bringing his guests. Today the owner rushed over to greet Jim as an old friend, telling him of a family medical emergency and informing Jim that he was taking his family to the clinic in Bocas town. When we departed a couple of hours later, the little wooden canoe that had been tied at the dock upon our arrival was gone, already undertaking the long journey to town.

Expected color morph of Strawberry Poison-Dart Frogs on Isla Popa .

Expected color morph of Strawberry Poison-Dart Frogs on Isla Popa.

Strawberry Poison-Dart Frog at Isla Popa.

Strawberry Poison-Dart Frog at Isla Popa.


Strawberry Poison-Dart Frog at Isla Popa.

No sooner had we hit land, than Ramón and Natalia were calling me over to one or another color morph of poison-dart frog. This site on Isla Popa was indeed one of those patches of high frog density and diversity. The island norm was a golden body with blue legs, but not only were there various renditions of these colors here but reds and oranges, with or without spotting were also thrown in the mix. I never made it to the end of the trail. In fact, I never made it beyond a hundred yards or so. By the end I felt like I was placing orders – “I still need photos of a red and blue frog with spots, please.” And when I finally completed my hit list here, Jim Kimball promised all blue Strawberry Poison-dart frogs, as well as a different species of poison-dart frog at another site. We were off to Cerro Brujo, on the mainland.

This too proved to be a dockside landing at the head of a mangrove boardwalk. The trail then meandered through a series of pastures and finally into forest along a quaint stream. Moments later, the chorus of “Here’s a frog” began and as promised, these were fully blue. Also as promised, there was a second species – Green and Black Poison-dart Frogs (Dendrobates auratus), brilliantly colored in accordance with their name. This was another site of stunning frogs and incredible forest. I marveled at our host’s ability to guide directly to one or another color of frog, even well-beyond his own property.

All blue color form of the Strawberry Poison-dart Frog at Cerro Brujo.

All blue color form of the Strawberry Poison-dart Frog at Cerro Brujo.

Green and Black Poison-dart Frog at Cerro Brujo.

Green and Black Poison-dart Frog at Cerro Brujo.

After lunch back at the lodge, Natalia took me into Tranquilo Bay’s trailed forest to look for their frog morphs that ranged from red to orange, with or without black spots. She glanced at her watch en route though and decided that first we should stop at the Golden-collared Manakin lek as activity should be peaking right about then. I could hear popping, snapping and chirping sounds as we tucked into the forested trail and was startled by a buzzing that proved to be one of the males of the lek zipping by my head. There was no lack of activity in here! Flashes of the yellow and black of these showy birds streaked by us as we snuck down the trail, tip toeing past one then another of the small clearings the males maintain for their displays. Natalia motioned me to a milk crate seat just in front of one of the clearings and moments later, the owner was snapping back and forth among the standing twigs as if in a pinball machine. He paused before me and splayed the yellow feathers beneath his chin as he vocalized, then snapped his wings together and began his mad pinballing again. Similar displays were occurring all around us, so much so that the energy here buzzed through me and I found my own head ping ponging from one bird to the next. Somehow in the midst of all of this Natalia noticed a Three-toed Sloth above us, obliviously chill despite its jazzed up neighbors. It looked giant after having been up close and personal with the miniatures on Escudo! We spent the rest of the day wandering through the forest, emerging just in time to enjoy sunset from atop the 100ft observation tower where parrots and oropendolas flew above and warblers flitted in the trees below.

Male Golden-collared Manakin pausing during his courtship display.

Male Golden-collared Manakin pausing during his courtship display.

Helmeted iguana at Tranquilo Bay, moved from his camouflage for this picture.

Helmeted iguana.

The next morning started with another pre-dawn breakfast. We’d intended to take an hour-long boat ride to assess waterbird nesting potential at nearby Changuinola Canal, a nine-mile canal dug in the early 1900’s to connect the Changuinola River with Almirante Bay that has become a famous birding spot. Jim Kushlan particularly wanted to check on reports of the Bare-throated Tiger Heron there, as this is outside its official range in Panama, and George wanted to find a Nicaraguan Seed-finch, one of the few birds he had not yet seen in Panama. A seemingly ceaseless tropical deluge delayed us though. Would it ever stop raining? Would there be any bird activity mid-day even if it did? Certainly the seed-finch George wanted to see wouldn’t be out later. And maybe George could instead see Tranquilo Bay’s resident Stub-tailed Spadebill, another must-see species for his list of Panamanian birds. Maybe we could go tomorrow instead. In the end, the trip never came to fruition. It was disappointing, but it did make for a more relaxing finale to the trip, as we were leaving Bocas the next day. There was more time to wander in the woods, revisit the manakin adrenaline rush, photograph frogs, for George to finally see his spadebill, for me to unsuccessfully stalk an elusive melanistic (all black) Green Heron, to watch the bats under my cabin eaves, and to track down a well-camouflaged and seldom seen Helmeted Iguana (Corytophanes cristatus)… just be a part of the laid-back and upbeat Tranquilo Bay family for a while longer.

Sunrise at Tranquilo Bay's dock.

Sunrise at Tranquilo Bay’s dock.

Travel Tips –

  • I stayed at the Bristol Panama on three different occasions during this trip, but I wouldn’t give it a glowing review. It is luxurious inside, but the surroundings aren’t very nice (heavily under construction at the moment) and service wasn’t great. Actually, service was pretty poor. Most of the staff I encountered spoke little to no English (a surprise given the reputedly international clientele of business people) and more importantly, were not helpful. Twice the bag delivering porters asked if I needed anything else and twice I asked for ice. The first told me to call room service and the second said he’d bring me some, but took his tip and never returned. When I asked the concierge where I might be able to buy bubble wrap to protect a Ngöbe-style canoe paddle I was bringing home, she never even looked up from her computer and informed me that Panama didn’t have any bubble wrap. Interestingly, I used my smartphone and discovered a mail store just blocks from the Bristol that had an abundant supply of bubble wrap. The upstairs lounge had mediocre food and a waiter that insisted I leave tip in cash and could not add it to my room tab. To their credit, the restaurant downstairs (Salsipuedes) did have good food and service, including an impressive breakfast buffet. Though the latter became a bit of an issue in that on my first stay my breakfast was included in my rate and on the last I was informed (after I’d already eaten) that it was not, even though I paid the exact same amount for the room. Ultimately the hotel general manager removed the breakfast charge for that last morning, but neither he nor the desk clerk could explain the difference and there were several minutes of looking through records and hinting that I had or was somehow cheating the system by not paying for my breakfast. My intention of inquiring had been to seek clarity for potential bookings on my next trip, but given the frustrating process that actually yielded no answers (combined with the preceding concierge experience and everything else), I’ll be looking for a new Panama City hotel for upcoming visits.
  • Panama City’s new Biomuseo is a great overview of the country’s geologic and human history, as well as an overview of its biodiversity.To understand the full story, the artistic displays are best augmented with the audio tour included with admission.
  • A visit to San Lorenzo National Park and it’s ruins, is a great day trip from Panama City. The ruins themselves are fun to explore, the view from there is impressive and the journey to get there through the Panama Canal, past U.S. Canal Zone remnants and through an impressive bit of rainforest is interesting. For a pleasant lunch, stop at The Dock Restaurant in Shelter Bay on your way through the former U.S. canal comound.
  • Aside from the October Black Christ Festival (which I can’t comment on as I haven’t been but it sounds interesting), I can’t honestly say that Portobelo is worth going out of your way to see. The town is rather dismal, the museum small and out of date, the ruins aren’t as impressive as those at San Lorenzo, the area’s water is murky and there is minimal tourist infrastructure. The latter can be a positive, but in this case it means driving all over the place before finding anywhere to get food. The only place open the night we were in Portobelo was Restaurant Ida. It looked fine and it seemed we were being offered fresh fish, shrimp, or octopus that could be cooked in several different preparations. Two of us chose shrimp cooked in garlic and olive oil and one agreed to octopus, not to be cooked in coconut milk as originally proposed but as creole. To our surprise, we were served lobster instead of shrimp and it was the worst lobster I’ve ever eaten. It was mealy, mine was mangled, it had no taste and was most definitely not fresh. The octopus was on the rubbery side and seeped in coconut milk despite the creole promise. Furthermore, we were appalled to discover when the bill arrived that they charged us more for those horrible lobsters that we hadn’t even ordered than the list price at the fancy restaurant in our hotel in Panama City! And to make matters worse, when we returned to our hotel that night we discovered a government notice posted by the hotel’s (closed) restaurant that very clearly stated that restaurants were forbidden to offer or serve lobster out of season; and we were in the middle of the off-season. I believe we stayed at one of the better, affordable hotels in the area – Sunset Cabins (run by Scuba Portobelo). It’s a funky little place with pleasant grounds centered around a stunning, bromeliad-laden tree. The tree and an over-water gazebo festooned with nesting Gray-breasted Martins were the highlights. The cabins themselves are small, stark and a little less than comfortable, particularly with regards to the bathroom. The El Otro Lado hotel looked much nicer online, but with a substantial jump in price.
  • The easiest way to get to Bocas del Toro is by air from Panama City, Panama or San Jose, Costa Rica. Air Panama offers an average of three flights a day in each direction between Bocas and Panama City, adding more planes as needed when flights fill. Nature Air offers several flights a week between San Jose and Bocas. More time consuming and complex but cheaper, you can also go overland from both Costa Rica and other parts of Panama, taking bus or taxi to the Panamanian town of Almirante on the mainland and a water taxi or ferry from there to the Bocas del Toro islands.
  • There are any number of cheap hostels and backpacker lodging options in the town of Bocas del Toro. For something nicer, we stayed at the Palma Royale Hotel. It was quaint and comfortable with great service, and a delicious included breakfast. Located at the end of Bocas town’s main business strip, it was within easy walking distance of shops and restaurants, as well as docks when we were ready for boat transfers. We chose to stay in the town for ready access to boats and taxis, but for those looking to stay in a more idyllic setting (my normal preference) I’d recommend staying somewhere en route to or on Playa Bluff. The Sand Dollar Beach Bed and Breakfast stood out as an attractive option as we were driving through the area.
  • ATVs are a popular way to explore Isla Colon. Jeep rentals are a recent expansion, and there seemed to be only a few available. Rentals can easily be found at several venues down the main street of Bocas town. The most widely advertised company is Flying Pirates, that also rents sea kayaks and offers guided tours, as well as a free beer when you return your ATV. If you do go exploring, Restaurante Yarisnori on Playa Boca del Drago is a good mid-day lunch stop with some of the best food we had on the island.
  • I can’t say enough good things about Tranquilo Bay Eco Adventure Lodge. So often eco lodges are either over the top extravagant or sufferingly rustic, but Tranquilo Bay gets it just right. Everything about this place is solid. The owners have restored and protected forest on their own property, helped to create a municipal reserve protecting neighboring lands, provide economic incentives for neighboring communities to protect their natural areas for tourism, support local biological research, run a homeschool program for the children of the two families, and are constantly exploring new ways to ecologically and socially improve their own operations for both the lodge and the wider Bocas del Toro community. Above all this underlying complexity, they maintain impeccable visitor experiences. They genuinely love what they do, where they are, and what their surroundings have to offer. They’re excited to share all this with their visitors, appropriately molded to individual desires. You want to sleep in late and then lounge on a nearby beach? They’ll make that happen. You want a pre-dawn breakfast and birding excursion? Done. Fishing? Boat’s ready. You want to delve into tropical rainforest ecology? Ramón and Natalia are exceedingly knowledgeable and enthusiastic, as well as patient. All the staff realize that the wildlife is a lure and everyone, from the boatmen to the housekeepers, graciously report when there’s a sloth or crab-eating raccoon in the mangroves, an onslaught of migrating hawks above the gardens, or any other highlight they encounter. It just feels like one big, happy family here – frogs and you included.
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  1. Pingback: Kirsten Hines’ Review of Tranquilo Bay | TB Blog

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