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.
“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.
Swimming 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.
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.
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?
Reticulated Brittle Sea Star
Green Moray Eels
Nine Armed Sea Star
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!
Nurse Shark resting ~4ft
One 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!
Now, 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!
The author in her element. Photo by Hugo Santa Cruz
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 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
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.
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
Global 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.
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!
Yep, it’s true. The migratory birds are on the move, leaving the tropics in droves now. Our prothonotary warblers left immediately, without giving me a chance to say goodbye, the chuckling call of the summer tanagers have faded away, but the northern waterthrushes seem hesitant to leave, their bobbing tails still evident among the garden grasses. And now migrants who spent their winter even farther south are moving through Panama on their northward trajectory.
Chestnut-sided, Tennessee, Bay-breasted Warbler, Red-eyed Vireo are feeding at our fruiting melastoma bushes and trees, Black-and-white and Blackburnian Warblers in their finest spring plumage search for insects nestled in the bark and leaves among the high branches, Baltimore Orioles join our resident Black-cowled Orioles in their search for sustenance and Scarlet Tanagers touting the brilliant feathers that give them their name contrast brightly against the greenery and Eastern Kingbirds fly overhead in droves not unlike the waves of barn swallows sweeping low across the Caribbean waters.
With the spring also comes spring break crowds to Bocas del Toro and that’s when we start to get more families with school-aged kids. The days have been filled with snorkeling excursions, bat caving adventures and mangrove exploration via kayak. Beach days have resulted in grand sand castles and an impressive beach casita made of bamboo and a palm thatch roof built by yours truly and a determined nine year old while her parents walked around the island. We were pretty darn proud of ourselves. It’s been a busy but fantastic season and I can’t begin to believe I’ve already been in Panama for eight months!
And for a quick respite, I recently had the pleasure of a few days off between spring breakers and so made for some higher latitudes. From Bocastown on Isla Colon I took the ferry to the mainland and hopped onto a shuttle that took me up a winding road to the highlands Boquete. I rented an Air BnB and was blown away by my luck, it was a single room with a little patio where I could sit down with my binoculars and journal while enjoying a perfectly magnificent view across a valley on to the facing foothills of Volcan Baru. For $20/night, I was getting a private room and bathroom when a hostel of the same price in town would have been a dorm with multiple bunks (aka roommates) and a shared bathroom. I was very content with my little hidden paradise.
While I was in the mountains, I was able to see a lot of species I’d enjoyed discovering last year when I was visiting the other side of the volcano here in Panama with the parents. I wasn’t out to get new birds, although I was enjoying adding to my ever-so-casual eBird “Big Year” since I hadn’t gotten any of these highland species yet in 2019. Big Year is when an individual “attempt to identify as many species as possible within a single calendar year.” My year is casual because I’m not in any rush nor am trying to get every single species when I’m in a new area, I’m simply adding to my eBird list when I encounter new birds and am looking forward to seeing how many species I end up with. In Boquete I added about 20 new species for a year total of 216. It’s fun!
So as the migrations carries on, I wistfully wave goodbye to my beloved neotropical migrants as they carry on in their hundreds or even thousands of miles journey northward. It’s incredible that these tiny feathered beings rely on those very feathers to transport them massive distances all while hoping that along the way there is enough food to sustain them in their great energy expenditure. That means habitat, termed “stopover sites” where birds can refuel and rest or possibly take shelter in adverse weather conditions before taking wing onward. Not only that, they’re also relying on there to be sufficient area for setting up nesting territory in their breeding grounds in preparation for the next generation of migrants.
Many birds lose their lives along the way and even once they get there and find a mate and a suitable place to build a nest and bear young, life never seems to get any easier. What hearty little sprites, these tiny long-distant flier are. So in farewell, I stand in awe of our neotropical migrants and wish them well on their journey.
And, we have such an important part in the future of these birds and all the other creatures that must struggle through life in the wild, we must respect and honor Mother Earth so she can continue to support all wildlife. It is my hope that we can not just continue to enjoy the multitude of species that inhabits this pale blue dot but also concede to the fact that as we lose species to extinction, that reduction in biodiversity has ripple effects that in turn hurts us. Wildlife is like the canary in the coal mine, what does that mean about the wider environment if that bird dies? Earth Day isn’t just today..let’s look out for her and all the beauty of life that relies on her to be healthy every day.
For a quick border run, I had the opportunity to spend a few days on my beloved Osa Peninsula to see some great friends made during my time guiding in Costa Rica last year. At the end of last guiding season, I lived in Puerto Jimenez for several months and its I again felt at home in this remote location that holds such an alluring density of biodiversity that it is only compared to the wilds of the Amazon.
In two seasons of officially living in the tropics, I’ve had the “pleasure” of dealing with a variety of electronic fails. Humidity, heat, sun and salt have all found a way to make for one, followed quickly by another, disintegrating timex sports watch, I’m on my third headlamp (never believe the word “waterproof” when you see it) and now I’m writing this blog post from my phone because my MacBook finally bit the big one. I admit I was living last year in a tent cabin that sported only a roof, screens on two sides and doors-be-damned so obviously things got moist on a regular basis. But in my defense I did put it in a sealed cooler with a desiccation bag at night. Such is electronics in the tropics.
Other fun byproducts of life in the tropics is mold. It’s always out to weasel it’s way into the depths of any fabric, clothing, backpack, pillow, even snorkel gear. When I guided in Costa Rica last year, I started to use it as a fashion statement..nothing of my clothes ever wanted to dry and so while speckled black stains of this invasive fungus made some of my clothing unwearable, other pieces I could get actually away with!
And sportswear, as expensive as it is and durable as it claims to be, never seems to be tropics-grade. Waterproof Merrill’s are really just Merrill’s, the soles of a fairly new pair of Keens came completely apart after only the fourth muddy bat cave tour or so (granted the mud is like soggy peanut butter), my Columbia rain jacket seems to be permanently permeable, zippers are corroding on various packs, and funky smells are emitting from my daypack shoulder-strap and binoculars straps (I take no responsibility).
Ah, but living in the tropics is nevertheless a complete dream, despite any drawback..
As you may have noticed, my “About Me” page needs some updates. Since I started this blog in 2016, “About Me” has naturally changed a couple of times and, as someone who sometimes just can’t press the dang delete button, I simply added on to what was already there when there were new things to tell about myself. What that made for was an exhaustingly long page about a girl who likes to write all about herself.
So, in order to not have to say goodbye to my precious ramblings, I decided to throw it all into a blog post because I know you’re all just dying to read something that’s been available to you all along. Well, here it is and stay tuned because I’m working on an exciting new updated version of About Me, so once you’re finished reading about me here, read about me in my About Me! Oh dear..
About Me (2016):
It only just occurred to me, eleven years later, that all this time the island was calling me back.
Seal Island, located 23 miles off the coast of Maine is where I am spending another summer, in the company of four other seabird researchers. We’re here to study the fascinating lives of puffins, terns, razorbills and black guillemots, while living among them.
I’m returning after an 11-year hiatus, having the ultimate pleasure of first visiting the islands managed by Audubon’s Project Puffin in 2003 and again in 2005. The project was started in the early 70’s by an enterprising young ornithologist named Steve Kress. The near extirpation (local extinction) of puffins from coastal Maine islands due to the hunting and the feather trade led him to devise a way to harbor their return. By transplanting puffin chicks from an abundant colony in Newfoundland to Maine’s Eastern Egg Rock and raising them with vitamin fortified fish in artificial sod burrows, he watched them fly out to sea where they spent the next handful of years before some precious individuals, miraculously, returned to their “natal” island to breed.
Project Puffin now manages seven Maine islands to preserve and protect these ideal breeding habitats for puffins and, consequentially, terns and various other alcids as well as seaducks, known as common eiders, which also nest on the islands. In order to protect these seabird colonies it is, unfortunately, important for our human presence to remain throughout the breeding season to deter gulls and other predators that feed on chicks and ducklings. Without us, the more prolific gull species (Black-backed, Herring and Laughing gull) would take over these islands. These species are generalists and their populations have skyrocket thanks to human-provided food sources like landfills, lobster bait and french fries. Terns and puffins suffer since they’re very specific as to where they will nest and generally don’t exist near human populations. Therefore, protected islands like these provide these sensitive, less abundant birds a chance to persist.
Fast forward several decades and here we are! Puffineers or “island stewards” like me have been managing and monitoring the birds on these islands ever since.
So follow my adventures as we follow the birds for yet another glorious season!
Above, you can read my first “about me” post for this page, explaining who I was and what I was up to at the time, which happened to be the start of my 3rds stint with Project Puffin, which why I started this blog, to share what I was seeing and learning through writing and photography. Well, now that that’s been a little under two years ago and, as you can see throughout my posts here on feathersawry, that yes, a lot has happened and I’m really excited to share it with everyone. I love taking what I’m learning and putting it on the table, what do we think about what we’re seeing and what is it telling us? By combining my writings (aka ponderings) with photography, I’m able to better illustrate what I’m talking about and what it means. Like this check this facey (upper left) I took of myself up in Maine when I worked a stint on Seal Island this fall (2017). Just about the entire island can be seen stretching and squiggling northeast-ish behind me. It’s about an hour’s slow walk to the cabin and I’m on the southwest-ish tip. The very far tip (seen basically next to my ear in the photo) is near the puffins and terns nests, which you see on the explore.org puffin cameras (we call ’em the cams). I’m sitting on the bottom tip of the island where the Double-crested and Great Cormorants have a big ol’ nesting colony. I couldn’t be there on that part of the island earlier in the season while the young cormorants were still growing and dependent on their parents because those parents would abandon their young if their colony was invaded by someone like me. At this point, all the young had fledged and groups were leaving the island to find prey in other areas. Anyways. My point is that my pictures can tell stories and so can my words but together they can not just tell you the story but give it to you, let you gain from it whatever you gain.
So as you may have noticed, this about page needs some updates. So here I am to do just that. Below you can read my first “about me” post for this page, explaining who I was and what I was up to at the time, which happened to be the start of my 3rds stint with Project Puffin, which why I started this blog, to share what I was seeing and learning through writing and photography. Well, now that that’s been a little under two years ago and, as you can see throughout my posts here on feathersawry, that yes, a lot has happened and I’m really excited to share it with everyone. I love taking what I’m learning and putting it on the table, what do we think about what we’re seeing and what is it telling us? By combining my writings (aka ponderings) with photography, I’m able to better illustrate what I’m talking about and what it means. Like this check this facey (upper left) I took of myself up in Maine when I worked a stint on Seal Island this fall (2017). Just about the entire island can be seen stretching and squiggling northeast-ish behind me. It’s about an hour’s slow walk to the cabin and I’m on the southwest-ish tip. The very far tip (seen basically next to my ear in the photo) is near the puffins and terns nests, which you see on the explore.org puffin cameras (we call ’em the cams). I’m sitting on the bottom tip of the island where the Double-crested and Great Cormorants have a big ol’ nesting colony. I couldn’t be there on that part of the island earlier in the season while the young cormorants were still growing and dependent on their parents because those parents would abandon their young if their colony was invaded by someone like me. At this point, all the young had fledged and groups were leaving the island to find prey in other areas. Anyways. My point is that my pictures can tell stories and so can my words but together they can not just tell you the story but give it to you, let you gain from it whatever you gain.
So anyways, I’m a nature-watcher. It all started with birds when I was nearly too young to remember. I was always taken by them, They’re beautiful, make any spot you’re in more interesting, and can tell you a lot about the environment you’re living in. So after an undergraduate degree in Biology from Warren Wilson College, I put boots to the dirt and went full into field jobs, working with wild birds, monitoring, measuring, banding them, learning about the resources they rely on, the habitats they utilize, their interactions with other creatures as both predator and prey, how their young are born first naked, then fluffy and expected to completely rely on their parents and the awful luck of getting snapped up in the beak of a gull or the paw of a raccoon or the maw of a snake, jaws of a raccoon or the pincers of a hoard of ants. So my interest expanded outward to encompass more than just the birds, they’re always my first and foremost, but you can’t watch just a bird without being influenced by how it’s spending its life and how it’s being impacted by what’s happening to this planet just as much as you are, they’re just less resistant to it and the first to succumb. Think canary in the coal mine.
Well, birds are telling us things, as we spend decades studying them, they’re telling us through trends: through population changes, range changes, reaction to changes in environmental cycles, drought, sea-level rise, and of course the ability to rebound (or rather, decline) in the face of the never-ending onslaught of human impact and development.
Anyways, so all that made me want to share what I’m seeing out in the field with the wider world, especially because I think people don’t have a clue what I mean when I tell them I work with birds and I want them to. And so it took coming out of the field to share what I’ve seen living within it. Pulling a Jane Goodall, is what I like to call it. Except I keep going back. But what makes it possible for me to keep returning to the field is the advance of technology, plain and simple. I can now write to the masses from a computer on Seal Island, whereas when I worked there in 2003 and 2005, I’m not sure we even knew what WiFi was.
So after about 5 years of hopping around from one field job to another, I shifted gears and headed to University of Oregon for a grad degree in Journalism. There I learned a lot of what I’m applying on my website, this blog and my youtube channel. So I took that experience, combined with some awesome opportunities writing for Eugene Weekly, Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and Wild Lens Inc and was able to somewhat keep up with my own blog.
But the field is always calling. So that’s where this blog started out (once again, see below, if you’re actually still reading this at all).
And I found myself in Florida, which has been great as I’ve gotten to spend so much time with my grandmother, a spectacular, sweet, awe-inspiring woman whom I adore. I’ve come and gone a few times, even just having gotten another moment on the island this fall. But now a new leaf turns and I’m headed to Costa Rica in a few weeks where I’ll be started on a whole different experience. I’m going to be able to incorporate learning, teaching, writing, photography and conservation all into one adventure. So stay tuned!
While I may be many hundreds of miles away from family during these past two years of tropical guiding, I can’t say I’ve been lonely, thanks to new friends, young and old. Passing the winter holidays in Central America makes for a confused state of mind, being that I’ve grown up accustomed to the changing leaves followed by an ever-growing chill in the air. For me, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years are associated with cold days hiking in forests barren of leaves except for the crunching underfoot. Layer upon thick layer of coverage never seems to be enough to keep the frigid air at bay and yet that doesn’t dissuade us from taking to the trails with puppies frolicking ahead or sniffing and rolling in the unknown behind. Glimpses of foxes melting into the underbrush, red-shouldered hawks stark and stern against the crisp blue sky, bluebirds playing keepaway and chickadees, titmice and kinglets like little ornaments flurrying in the branches overhead, this is what I equate with the holidays.
Here, rather, my closest connection to home is the neotropical migratory birds such as the northern waterthrush and chestnut-sided warbler which whisper hints of a long lost northern summer. Tropical holidays are warm and humid, Christmas trees look out of place, and Tranquilo Bay is brimming with guests in their escape from the frosty north while bringing the jolly right along with them. Happiness and love were a constant as families gathered and reunited. Generations joined together, sharing high spirits which were nothing but contagious as I guided jovial and obliging families along kayak jaunts through mangroves searching out upsidown jellyfish, snorkeling explorations overtop impressive reef awash in fire coral, brain coral and blade coral, even bat-caving adventures through dripping stalactites in water up to our chests on Christmas day. No moment was left unfilled, even the evenings were alight with games and stories. It was an absolute blast. Exhausting, but satisfying.
As we emerge from holiday festivities to greet the new year and things have slowed down for a moment, I’m re-energizing for what 2019 has to send my way. Health and happiness are of the utmost importance and I’m still learning something (or many things) new every day, be it about nature or about humanity, relationships, struggles and forgiveness. I am every day more and more impressed with this team I’ve joined and their endless hard work that makes Tranquilo the phenomenal lodge that it is.