Saturday, October 31, 2015

Escape to Bocas. Part III

In the second day of our stay at Tranquilo Bay Eco Adventure Lodge in Bastimentos Island (Bocas Archipelago in the western Caribbean lowlands), I went with my family on a boat trip to one of the hot birding spots reachable from the property: the Snyder Canal.
Gloriela, Gabrielle, Jean-Michael and Jan Axel at the Snyder Canal, Bocas del Toro
The night before, a thunderstorm hits hard the island, and by the morning a light drizzle and dark clouds accompanied us for the first part of the trip.  The bird activity was low, but Ramón took advantage of it and teached us about the canal.  The Snyder Canal, in mainland Bocas del Toro province, was the first Panama Canal in fact.  It is roughly 12-km long and runs paralleling the coast between Changuinola and Boca del Drago (in Colon Island).  It was completed in 1903 and used for the transportation of bananas (and supplies) from Changuinola to Almirante in order to be shipped to its final destination in the United States and Europe.  However, it soon became obsolete because a new railroad system eventually replaced it.
Our boatman Alvaro and Ramon showing us where the "Almirante" Manakins are usually found (I'm trying to imitate one) 
Well, obsolete depending of your point of view... the canal is still used by locals and foreigners, and is exceptionally good for birding since it cross several habitats, from pastures to forests.  Many of the regular birds found there are rare (or simply do not occur) in the rest of the province.  We enjoyed watching tons of migrants, Northern Jacanas, Purple Gallinules, four species of kingfishers, my life "Almirante" Manakin, Ruddy and Blue Ground-Doves, and so on...
male Blue Ground-Dove
We reached the estuary of the mighty Changuinola river on time for lunch.  Some rarely reported species (for Bocas del Toro province, that is) were present along the banks of the river and at the beach: Yellow-headed Caracara, Red-breasted Blackbirds, some migrant ducks and tons of shorebirds... in fact, the beaches at this site are a hotspot for migrant shorebirds... and some very rare species for Panama have been reported in the past.  I have to admit that I'm not used to see that amount of shorebirds away from the sites of the Pacific coast in Panama and Parita Bays.
Collared Plover
Semipalmated Plover
The shorebirds were not the only highlights at this place.  While my family was enjoying the beach, I followed Ramón birding the secondary growths along the coast.  For my surprise, an active warbler showed up quite low and close to us.  The bright yellow head with contrasting black eye-line caught my attention.
Blue-winged Warbler
A Blue-winged Warbler.  This VERY rare migrant to Panama was, in fact, a new addition to the list for the place and a lifer for Ramón!  For the return journey, Ramón had us a surprise.  After leaving the canal we headed north to some well-known islets off Colon Island, the Swan Cays (aka Bird Island).  Eight years ago I visited those islets with Gloriela in our honey moon.  Back then, we saw nesting frigatebirds, Brown Boobies and few Red-billed Tropicbirds... the main attraction of the visit, since these islands are the only known nesting sites for this species in Panama.
Brown Boobies nesting in Swan Cay
However, around sunset, the birds are returning to their nests and the show is sensational! Dozens of elegant tropicbirds swarm around, chasing each other, vocalizing and giving us excellent opportunities to take great pictures.  I counted 40 birds at once... but certainly many more were around!
Red-billed Tropicbird
Officially the best experience of the day!  In the way back we saw some dolphins close to the shore of Colon Island.  I thought they were Bottlenose Dolphins, the same species we saw eight years ago; however, Ramón did note that another dolphin species (genus Sotalia) can be found in these waters: the Tucuxi.  The dolphins we saw were definitively smaller than the Tursiops, but we didn't get close enough to see the critical field marks.
Bottlenose Dolphin in "Dolphins Bay", Bocas (eight years ago)
For the third and last day in Tranquilo Bay, I woke up early for a birding walk with Natalia.  She chose an open area surrounded by forest with an awesome view of the sea.  The birding activity was furious... with tons of migrants, including many almost-near-impossible-to-identify Empidonax flycatchers.  Check this one for example:
Empidonax sp.
I know... the worst approach to ID empids is trying to identify silent birds in migration.  However, notice the long primary projection, relatively short tail and big head, and almost all-dark lower mandible (less than one third of the mandible at the base is orange).  Hammond's Flycatcher is a probability... who is with me?  We joined my family later for breakfast.  Our flight back home was scheduled for the afternoon, so we still had part of the morning to enjoy one of the hidden treasures of the property.  The secluded bay is ideal for kayaking and snorkeling... and what a experience!
Jan Axel and Gabrielle enjoying the calm waters
The coral reef surrounding the bay is like an underwater garden full of life... and both Natalia and Ramón are excellent interpretative guides.  It was a whole different world for all of us, and a wonderful way to end our stay in Tranquilo Bay Eco Adventure Lodge.  For three days we experienced a taste of paradise at our own country, felt right at home, saw amazing birds and wildlife, and most important of all, we made good friends.  I want to thank Natalia, Ramón, Jim, Renee, Jay and their families for inviting me and my family to their piece of paradise... I'm sure we will repeat the experience soon!


  1. Empidonax looks like a Willow to me, or perhaps an Alder. Hammond's has a much stronger eyering. Muchos saludos!