Caribbean Coral Restoration of Bocas del Toro

Guess who helped cleaned coral trees hung with fragments growing toward becoming vibrant, healthy, future reef with Caribbean Coral Restoration to finish off this doozie of a year?

I was invited to help for the second time to clean PVC “coral trees”, structures hung with coral fragments stationed at around 45ft of depth between the island archipelago where I live, in Caribbean Panama’s Bocas del Toro. This time we went to a site set between my “home” Bastimentos, and Isla Solarte. The underwater trees, adorned with staghorn coral fragments hung with zip ties from the pipes, have urgently had to be moved from their original, shallower location to 45 feet of depth after a 4-day bleaching event that occurred this winter. This event bleached out a great deal of reef ecosystems around the area, many might never recover. Along with these, a number of hard-won and exceedingly fragile staghorn fragments fell victim to soaring water temperatures before the trees were relocated to deeper waters by the CCR team.

Staghorn coral hung from PVC coral tree

To be a part, no matter how small, of Caribbean Coral Restoration’s ardent and grand-scale mission of restoring Bocas del Toros declining coral reef ecosystem is not just an honor, it’s how I feel better about being part of the problem.

Trying to neutralize the ecological sinkhole of a footprint I am responsible for as another US-born human is not a mere footprint anymore..our lives are just what I said years ago in a frustrated blogpost. I complained, back in two-thousand tickety eight, something along the lines of how each human added to our exploding population is a gash in the stomach of Mother Earth..every new one of us humans adds yet another. I continue to write things along those same lines on my blog site reserved for bitching about my exasperation at how we’re treating Mother Earth. If you can stomach it, check out earthwillprevail.wordpress.com.

It is devastating and beyond frustrating to witness the terrible bleaching that has occurred in recent months and years of late. The lack of rain we continue experienced in what is supposed to be the rainy parts of the year (not to mention this is a La Niña year which signifies an especially wet year, not to mention drought from prior years from which nature is still trying to recover) has resulted in extremely high water temps that directly causes coral bleaching. What is lost of this ecosystem cannot be replaced in time to outweigh the ever-increasing losses. And these losses can make null all the tireless efforts and investment for the future that Caribbean Coral Restoration has envisioned.

While cleaning the PVC pipe “branches” hung with staghorn coral fragments collected under permit by Caribbean Coral Restoration, I have them to thank for the new Best Friend Forever I made that day: a giant gray angelfish staring intently at me as it hung out within arm’s reach for the entire tank of air. Like many of the Bocas angelfish I’ve had the honor of getting to know in the past 2+ years, this one seemed quite curious about me, every now and then stopping from staring at me to grab a chunk of algae off a nearby coral. And along with the gray, I made friends with a big bright porkfish, an in-your-face yellow-tailed snapper, the ever present slippery dick and striped parrotfish and the occasional adult stoplight parrot fish chased off by the uppity three-spotted damselfish. So basically, I had my own personal peanut gallery giving advice on spots I missed as I scrubbed at PVC hung with thee remaining living fragments of precious staghorn coral.

Gray angelfish

The fish abundance and diversity where we cleaned today was refreshing to see but the habitat around Bocas as I’ve seen it and heard from other long term folks living and snorkeling or diving here across the years has has become ever more ravaged and depleted, which means we will see the echo response of fish and other marine life that exist because of the habitat that supplied. Large scale, devastating and ever-increasing coral losses are *permanently* changing the underwater world—not just in Bocas, but worldwide. We are all one. We suffer together from the consequences of the corners we’ve backed ourselves into.

Juvenile stoplight parrotfish

“Guilt. Just by being born, just by living, I am adding to the destruction of the planet. We all are. We begin marching to our own death as we emit our first exhalation. It starts small but then we learn that we are a middle class, white, american, and we buy our laptops and our ipods and cars, live in our overly air conditioned and heated homes and throw away our masses and masses of package waste. What would it look like if it followed us, if we had to step through it, drag it, wear it? Would we try harder to make sure it never even began? Every girl and boy comes to a point in their live where they are capable of the realization of their detrimental contribution to the earth and they can either do something about it or ignore it. Either way, so much has already been done. Every day, think about how many children are being born. Think about how each and every one of us is another bullet through the earth’s heart.”

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Buenos Días, Grandy!

This is the second installment in what I’m calling my “Good Morning, Grandy!” series. Join me on jaunt down to Tranquilo Bay’s dock and we’ll listen to the tropical sounds of the morning together..

 

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Corona Times of 2020

I’m going to start by sending out a huge sloth hug to you all. Love can travel through wifi waves and here it comes your way..

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Feel free to send one back, because who knows what the future holds, we’re all on this wild roller coaster ride together and the news and acts happening around the world are particularly appalling as of late. From afar, I stand in solidarity, love, respect and hope for the Black Lives Matter movement. My heart breaks that there are human beings–if you have the stomach to even call them that–that think even for a second that these lives don’t matter. Eff that.

So while we stand in these ever-more uncertain times where reality is in shambles and seems to be ever further disintegrating before our eyes, I ask you to look to nature. It’s out there, unfettered life just continuing along without regard to the world we stare at in current horror. The flower has poked its head out and breathed in a bit of cleaner air than the flowers from seasons past. That’s something.

Let’s just stop and take a malachite moment..

 

My escape is nature. It’s everywhere, even in cities if one takes a second look! I remember walking to work along DC city streets and noticing the downy woodpeckers feeding on insects in the ornamental trees, a coopers hawk watching house sparrows feeding in the bushes below the rowhouses and the pair of kingbirds that nested in the shadow of the towering obelisk that is the National Monument.

IMG_0129I thank my lucky stars every single day that I’m where I am in these Corona Times. I have nature surrounding me and I promise I’m not trying to rub it in anyone’s face when I share the awesome encounters I’ve been so fortunate to come across. I just hope to give you an escape from the news, from the despair, from the uncertainty, because even in paradise, I feel it too.

Another escape I’ve recently started delving into is digital art. It’s really turned into another good way to escape our current unfortunate reality. I get lost the practice of drawing, I finally finished my tropicbird and I’ve got an Atlantic puffin, prothonotary warbler and a golden collared manakin in the works. It’s really been a way to turn off the brain from the constant barrage of thoughts that aren’t always pleasant.

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And please, be sure to keep moving. Walk, run, swim if you can. Go hiking, don’t just take in the sights, open your senses to the sounds around you, pull them apart, see if you can call them by their name. Listen to nature’s music, follow the song of a bird or a frog and see if you can catch a glimpse, behold the susurration the wind makes as it passes through the leaves, take note of the rustles in the leaves and check for something furry or scaled. Inhale the essence of the earth or a fallen log that’s returning to it, broken down from something living back into nutrients, minerals and the basic elements we’re all made up of.

What do you do to escape the uncertainty? Feel free to share in the comments!

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Good Morning, Grandy!

Just sent this to my grandmother, Dorothy Hollis, who is in lockdown in her 98th year of life.

 

As a member of the Women’s Army Corps, she travelled from Australia to Japan behind the McArthur party during WWII. At the age of 18, she saw and lived in devastated, bombed out areas ravaged by war. She doesn’t talk about it much and so I can only imagine what the experience must have been like at such a young age.

Grandy, who is mother to my beloved Daddio, was the one who introduced me to the wonders of traveling to other countries, taking me first to Africa when I was 15 after asking where in the world I wanted to go. I saw giraffe, elephants, rhinos, leopards, lions, ostridge, zebra..oh and the wildebeest migration, to name a few. That was in 1999..I’m not sure the experience would be the same in regard to species population and richness, now twenty years later.

But it opened my eyes to another world and I’ll never forget the momumentally humbling moment of stepping out into the streets of Nairobi as the only glaringly white person in sight. I got the tiniest glimpse of what life must be like for those who live that feeling on a regular basis as the “token black person”. Like I said, she opened my eyes.

For my high school graduation in 2002, she asked again and by then I knew I had to follow the biodiversity. We spent two weeks in Costa Rica and the image of my first toucan (chestnut-mandibled, as it will always be) is forever burned into my memory, I waited with breath bated seeing it only from behind on its perch across the river in Tortuguero National Park..when it turned its head and showed that marvelous beak I nearly dropped to the ground, my whole body was alight with exhileration. When we arrived back to the states and my parents greeted us at the airport I told them,

“I’m going to live down there one day.”

The tropics were calling me from the moment I arrived and I have all the love and gratitude for the incredible woman who opened me up to this magical world I now call home.

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Tranquilo Bay Caribbean Adventures

Been busy around Tranquilo Bay this winter and had a chance to get up to surprise Grandy for her 98th birthday! Not much time to post but here’s something of mine that we recently put up on Tranquilo Bay’s Instagram…enjoy!

 

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Exploring Bocas..at depth!

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Stacey facey in an underwater placey..

So while we‘ve been getting busy here at Tranquilo Bay as we bound into the high season, I was pleased to have a chance before things got too involved to don a mask, snorkel, BCD and tank so that I might explore the depths of Bocas del Toro.

Since I spend a great deal of my time throughout the high season taking Tranquilo guests to explore and learn about our nearby coral reefs, teaching them about this beautiful water world that’s swimming with diversity, I figured I might as well dive into the depths of Bocas to better get to know this fantastically biodiverse ecosystem on a much deeper level.

 

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Stoplight Parrotfish (juvenile)

 

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Grey Angelfish

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Spotted Drum

 

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Nurse Shark with Sharksucker attached

 

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Cushion Seastar

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Giant Sea Anemone

 

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September in the States

img_2098Happy 2019 Fall Migration, everyone!

Whew, with this “Casual Big Year 2019” I’ve been carrying out, my eBird list has certainly enjoyed a huge boost this migration with having traveled north at the beginning of this month. I’ve been enjoying a “September in the States” to see family and friends before heading back down to Tranquilo Bay for my second high season there. And on my way back down to Panama at the end of the month, I’ll be riding the same winds that our migratory raptors, shorebirds and songbirds are doing (even at this very moment!) as we all travel south for the winter. 

 

And then, right before South America, I’ll stop along with the winter resident summer tanagers, northern waterthrushes, spotted sandpipers and prothonotary warblers in the south Caribbean’s Bocas del Toro, Panama where we get to enjoy each other for the winter as they enjoy a tropical world with plenty to eat where they’ll feed next to colorful parrots and honeycreepers instead of the obligatory chickadee or titmouse.

Time with family and friends has been packed, active, outdoorsy and fun-filled. It’s practically all been spent out of doors, hiking, kayaking, bicycling and pure birdwatching (but always keeping tabs on the birds throughout other activities), and it’s been glorious! I love this late summer time of year in temperate zones and the afternoon light that creeps earlier and earlier as the birds get restless and feed like crazy on this fall harvest of nuts and berries before their long-distance migration to the tropics and subtropics. Anyways, here’s an idea of the fun I’ve had over the past two weeks in the states:

I’ll be back in Panama at the end of the month, thus in time to see the continuing stream of birds that pass through on their journey before winter hits the northerly climes, different species traveling down Central America and even farther down into South America.

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Common Yellowthroat, Blue Mash Nature Trail, Maryland, Fall 2019

As we find ourselves arriving into peak fall migration I just always have to give a nod to our migratory birds because they’re flying their little hearts out while I have the luxury of an airplane seat to doze in. These little sprites, weighing in at less than an ounce and flying thousands of miles, sometimes without stopping–as in when they fly over oceans there’s no stopping because that means dying. Warblers, vireos, tanagers, sandpipers, hawks, vultures and other migrants following the eastern flyway headed south will oftentimes simply vault off the end of Florida and fly for days over the Caribbean before seeing the mainland again.

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Tired Spotty.

Particularly impressive to me are the warblers and shorebirds. I’ve held these little sprites when I worked on various bird-banding efforts and they weigh simply nothing, they’re all feathers and they’re so fragile! So the idea that one of these tiny, magnificent creatures can carry out such a phenomenal feat (while many still die along the arduous way) is pretty mind boggling and wildly impressive.

What’s fun is that up here in first the subtropics of Gulf Coast of Florida (where I spent last week) and now tooling around MD/VA/DC, I’ve essentially headed upstream against the migration. So I’m seeing some fun perspectives of migration. For instance, I’ve now seen Red-eyed vireos first in Panama last month, then Florida last week and today in DC on a birdwalk along the Potomac River. Also there was a Chestnut-sided warbler which is the same species I look forward to seeing in a couple weeks, scarfing down melastoma berries around the gardens of Tranquilo Bay on Isla Bastimentos where I live in the Caribbean.

It’s also just fun to see all the birds I grew up with down in my tropical digs. I love having them through the fall and winter down with me in Panama. Looking forward to seeing my feathered “snowbird” neighbors in a couple weeks!

Happy Birding and enjoy the migration!

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Hooded Warbler, Myakka State Park, Florida,      Fall 2019

…it really is mother earth’s reminder and the very symbol of our connection with other countries and the importance of protecting habitat that will support birds in both their northern and southern homes, but also between the two as stopover habitat to support the birds and provide food to fuel the long flight ahead.

We’re connected, it’s a whole system that functions across state and country boundaries. And if we’re not supporting the wildlife that depend on protected habitat to survive, we’re also putting ourselves in danger as is becoming more and more evident as we dive headfirst into the terrors of how earth is reacting to what we’ve done to it. Oops, I meant to stop this post a couple paragraphs ago.

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Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Blue Mash Nature Trail, Maryland, Fall 2019

Anyways, be well, enjoy the beauty, let it draw you away from this worldwide shit hurricane we’re in at the moment. Oh and please leave comments..I’d love to get an idea of who is reading 🙂

(thanks momma, daddio)

And thanks so much for reading!

 

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Parents’ Panamanian Invasion!

From Panama City to the mountains of Boquete to Bocas del Toro and Tranquilo Bay! Baves, kayaking, snorkeling, hiking and plenty of tropical wildlife!

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Snorkelsizing, it’s a thing.

When you live on an island surrounded by blue Caribbean waters, it’s hard to stay out of them. While a large part of my position here at Tranquilo Bay is taking people out to the reefs and showing them the bounty of colorful life that exists beneath the surface, I still continue to find the need to enter those warm waters on my own and carry on exploring the fascinating wonders that await below the surface.

SpongeCoral II

“Stacey’s going snorkelsizing!” I yell to the bosses whenever I find myself with a bit of free time enough to don my mask and hit the warm sparkling Caribbean waters with gusto.

53403639_701677512345_9012780650641489920_oSwimming for exercise is something I started back when these ol’ creaky knees of mine started complaining about the high impact that jogging subjects them to. When I lived with my brother in DC, I started hitting up Dunbar High School’s public pool at the end of the street. Then, when I found myself living beside the Golfo Dulce last year, I officially coined the term: Snorkelsizing. Be sure to look out for it to start showing up in formal dictionaries worldwide before the year’s end–it’s that legit.

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I’ve quickly come to decide that it’s the best form of exercise there is. As I freestyle along, I’m not only getting exercise, I’m highly entertained at the same time! It’s reminiscent to hitting the elliptical at the gym while watching whatever they decided to channel the TV to except way, way better.

 

 

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Queen Angelfish

And not only am I entertained, I’m learning too: observing, discovering, encountering all manner of life and, as I become more and more familiar with our local underwater ecosystems, I’m actually becoming a better guide as well. Now that I’ve been around the block enough, I’m starting to encounter some critters in the same location enough to know that’s where they’ll be, like the pair of queen angelfish that play hide and seek among the coral not far from the service dock or the area surrounded by mangroves where I can guarantee three different species of sea stars and every size of upside down jellyfish, or how about the favorite nearby haunts of two beautiful yet cartoonish green moray eels?

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Reticulated Brittle Sea Star

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Green Moray Eels

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Nine Armed Sea Star

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Ragged Sea Hare

Another wonderful thing about this watery world that positively drips (ha!) with biodiversity is there’s ALWAYS something new to see. Every single time I get in the water, I see something I’ve never seen before be it a new species, like the bug-eyed Squirrelfish, or the pile of seaweed slug called a Ragged Sea Hare. And if it’s not a new species for me, it’s an encounter I’ve never had before, like an enormous school of sleek Bar Jacks with neon blue dorsal fins circling within arm’s reach or a nurse shark longer than I am tall, passing a mere few meters away!

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Nurse Shark resting ~4ft

Screen Shot 2019-06-05 at 2.05.02 PMOne of my favorite experiences has been that of a growing friendship with Pierre, a very dashing, mature adult French angelfish. I first came across Pierre a couple months ago and was enamored from the start. About the size of a serving plate, Pierre lives along one of my snorkelsizing routes that follows the edge of the mangroves. Delighted with my discovery and I found myself entranced watching this enormous, regal fish command his (or her?) patch of coral. Eager to see him again, I follow the same route consecutively over the following days. But when I came upon him a second time, I noticed a quarter-sized chunk taken out of his side above the right fin. The third time? No Pierre.

I was saddened to think this glorious fish had died of his wound or perhaps whatever had made it in the first place came back for the rest. About a week later, I passed his old haunt and was thrilled to see a huge adult French Angelfish appear out of the ether! Pierre? Looking at his right side, I couldn’t see any wound, could this be a new individual that had taken over his territory? But then, diving down for a better look, I could barely make out the faint outline of the healed flesh where the gash had been. Pierre survived!

Screen Shot 2019-06-05 at 1.45.36 PM 2Now, I regularly see him swimming proprietarily around his stomping grounds and if I don’t see him right away, he’ll usually show up from nearby if I give him a minute..

Having the opportunity to familiarize myself in this way with the underwater life that make up these Caribbean waters is one that I am enormously thankful for. It’s a beautiful way to explore, get exercise, connect with nature and even reach a sort of meditative state that revives and refreshes me so that I can be the best guide I can for each new guest who arrives to Tranquilo Bay. Not to mention they might be lucky enough to get to meet Pierre and his friends!

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The author in her element. Photo by Hugo Santa Cruz

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Watching them go.

We’ve been watching them go and, now at the tail-end of migration, our neotropical migrating birds are nearly all gone.

Fall Migration at Tranquilo Bay, 2018

It’s been a delight to work outside and be able to intentionally search out the mass migration of birds north for the spring and summer that is and has been occurring all around us lately.

Eastern Kingbird

Eastern wood-pewees are still letting their existence be known, their high pitched calls whistling from the end of a twig that terminates a leafless branch high above, the birds searching intently for insects. Bay-breasted and Chestnut-sided warblers feed on melastoma berries (of which hopefully there are

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enough of for all the migrant and nesting resident birds after that massive sequía—aka drought—here in the Bocas del Toro province). The male Scarlet and Summer tanagers proudly wing by in their spring finest and the Prothonotary warblers disappeared early without even saying goodbye while the northern waterthrushes seem reticent to go. The black terns didn’t stay for long, the eastern kingbirds came in mass and the barn swallows seemed to have both started and finished the migration with us here in Bocas.

 

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Fall Raptor Migration 2018

Raptors-wise, our birds of prey are riding the cordillera late this year, with Pepper (aka Pepper aka John Spahr) and his Field Guides birding group this last week of April, we had some superb views of the Mississippi kites on the move, along with a just as tremendous an amount of Turkey Vultures along with a peppering of Swainson’s hawks, including dark phase. We didn’t see the big movement out here on the islands this season like we did in the fall because the nice weather keeps them following the mountains and not blown out over the sea.

It’s nearing six months this May since I started guiding at Tranquilo. I’ve been in Panama since August. The same time last year, I was in Costa Rica. I’ve been here in the tropics to witness the 2018 migratory movement last fall from temperate breeding zones of the US and Canada to the Arctic down to our tropical wintering locations in both Central and South America. After a winter in the tropical climes, these populations of songbirds, seabirds and shorebirds, as I’ve been so fortunate to witness here in the spring of 2019, wing back north to breed and raise their young.

Resident Red-capped Manakin comes in for his share.

They’re less territorial when they migrate. You will see a melastoma bush full of male, decked out in beautiful breeding plumage, blackpoll warblers shoulder to shoulder with a trio of gorgeous resident red-capped manakins as they all set to devour as many fruits as they can fit. There’s enough for everyone and why fight amongst each other when you need to save the energy for the next hundred miles?

 

By eBirding what we see in terms of birds is what we are representing Panama and more specifically the Bocas del Toro province. By sharing what migrants we’re seeing, when and where, to eBird, we are contributing scientific data that can show us what birds are where throughout the year. This is data that they can create visualizations through animated species maps that document the movement of a single species across the twelve months of the year through animated movement of points of location and species density (on a color gradient) data. Where they were spotted and how many over the course of the year is derived as a moving, multicolored graphic overlaying an outline of Central and North America.

Here are a couple of screenshots I got from the animation of movements of Baltimore Orioles the first in February and the second in Ma. As we know and as the data shows, you all up north have the pleasure of seeing these fruit-lovers now as they carry on into the breeding season.

This kind of data tells us where species of concern (basically all birds) are and when. This way we can determine critical areas and habitat that birds rely on so we can focus on what most urgently needs to be protected. I just read an article out of The Washington Post that pinpoints the benefit of this data. What researchers and citizens scientists have achieved in regard to migrating shorebirds and where they are at specific times of year is to develop an agreement that pays farmers a fee to flood their field for a few weeks out of the year to give habitat for migrating shorebirds like least sandpipers, whimbrel and pacific golden plover. Its rented habitat and we know know when to rent it. Read the article, it’s promising!

Least Sandpiper, Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro

 

Screen Shot 2019-05-03 at 1.57.25 PM.pngGlobal Big Day out of Cornell Lab of Ornithology is at the end of this week, Saturday, May 4th. It’s like a “a Catch ’em All” championship between countries as we try to see as many species as possible. It’s not just a fun challenge but it also benefits from the data that is derived from these amplified efforts a mere pair of days a year over the two migrations.

 

eBirding resident birds helps document changes they might be undergoing right where you live.

Might as well contribute sightings to eBird all year! It’s fun because it brings back memories of the story behind all the various bird encounters over the course of your years. I’m doing a casual eBird Big Year (a practically happenstance or passive one) and I love adding new birds to the list, even if it’s “just” a ruddy ground dove. I would say I eBird a couple times a week..it doesn’t have to take over your day job.

It’s pouring rain right now and we’re praising the sky gods after a long sequía (also known as drought). Hopefully this year’s fruit crop was productive enough for all the migrants and nesting residents birds. Perhaps our eBird submissions will help up find out. We need another “State of the Birds” report and this is a great way to produce the data for one with proposed or suggested changes in regard to sustainability and eco-mindedness. There needs to be more funding for looking into things like this. Easy solutions from eBird submissions leading to that farmers agreement are what make a huge difference. We can help!

It’s a time of year that tourism in the tropics slows down and Bocas del Toro’s real soul comes out. Raucous kids in Bocastown have filtered back statesward. Families and birders are enjoying the good weather in their own countries. Tranquilo will turn a little more tranquilo in the way of guest frequency and volume. I’m excited to experience another winter in the tropics but sad I won’t be accompanied by my neotropical migrants. Until next migration!

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Goodbye Migrants! We’ll be here for your return!

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