Part I ~ 8 Days in Florida with Family
Well, here we are nearly a week into our International Adventure and I’ve yet to document our 8 wonderful days in Florida. After a layover in Coral Gables to play bridge with Jim and Carol, we drove north to New Port Richy for a visit with Carol’s daughter, Catherine, and her wife, Kenie. Both work out of their beautiful home, and Kenie treated us to kayaking in the mangroves, delicious seafood restaurants, and a walking tour of the downtown. Catherine, true to her style, closets herself into her home/office and efficiently administers a staff of over 350 employees. Both are highly talented and motivated to profit from their unique skills and share a goal to retire within 5 years.
Florida is a lot larger than I recall, and the route to the Tampa area required an overnight in each direction. We made the most of it. Carol had recently completed the trip to celebrate Catherine’s birthday, and chose a few lovely spots for us to bird along the way. (Please note these HotSpots are as much for me to recall later as they are for you to explore should you with to visit the area.)
Wakodahatchee Wetlands Preserve ~ Repeat visit for us, and we enjoyed far better views/photos of the Gray-headed Swamphen (now that should get some birders salivating!)
Bok Tower Garden ~ In addition to a beautifully managed grounds supported by a vast team of staff & volunteers, the property boasts of a multi-story tower visible for miles around. Designed with an Art Deco motif, it features an array of tuned bells that played a crystal-like concert on the hour. A resident Painted Bunting seemed to enjoy it as well, and joined us for the music.
Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park ~ This place is home to many species of injured wildlife. Barring the few fortunate enough to be released, most will live out their lives in this non-threatening environment. Some actually have mates who, although not injured or restrained in any way, continue to stay with their partner. It’s pretty eclectic; where else can you share ailment stories with a 63-year-old Hippo and then snorkel with Manatees in the springs next door? There’s nothing keeping the Flamingos here; they thoughtfully contributed to this blog’s masthead photo.
Honeymoon Island State Park ~ A lengthy stretch of beach along a spit bordering a lagoon. Saw herons, ibis, and sandpipers.
The Celery Fields ~ Supported by the local Audubon Society, we walked the fields and photographed my first Eastern Phoebe.
Audubon Corkscrew Sanctuary ~ A heavy rain complicated our walk along the 3-mile boardwalk. It was wonderful having Carol’s son, Michael, and granddaughter Olivia, along for the day. Had an interesting sighting of a female Anhinga spearing and swallowing a perch. Since they don’t rip fish apart like an Osprey, the Anhinga beats the hell out of it on a Mangrove root making it easier to consume whole.
Part II ~ The Adventure Begins: On to Panamá
We had a mid-morning American Airlines flight to Panamá City, and Carol had thoughtfully arranged a shuttle to our hotel. It felt good to be back in a tropical climate, and we wasted no time to bird the area around the Radisson. The hotel is located on what was once part of the “Canal Zone,” an area administrated by the USA. It’s located right on the canal and, from our 4th floor window, we had a great view of the Bridge of the Americas. Every so often, a ship would pass through; in the morning heading west, and in the afternoon heading east toward the Caribbean town of Colón. While periodic nautical traffic passes beneath the bridge, automobile traffic flowed endlessly across the bridge. We learned that at peak traffic periods, the bridge is closed to 2-way traffic.
The grounds of the hotel were reminiscent of a far grander time. We imagined how it must have looked with military personnel responsible for weed, insect, and scary critter mitigation. None of that appears to be a priority now, and vines grow willy-nilly (as tropical vines are prone to do). Unpruned trees drop broken branches that not surprisingly makes for good birding habitat. No complaints here. That afternoon of birding produced several new life birds for all of us. As is typical of our adventures, we’d made it into an exhausting day and retired early for our departure to Bocas del Toro the following morning.
The Uber shuttle to the local airport was a mere 10 minutes, and we arrived with time to spare. Right across the street is a canal, and we figured to give it a look. Right there on the bank of the canal were a couple new Sandpipers and a Crocodile. A moment later, a Ringed Kingfisher flew right up and, unlike their “belted” cousins in Oregon, this bird just posed as if waiting for a tip.
The flight was packed, with mostly a youthful, adventurous crowd searching for the perfect wave. I learned from my seat mate that the break in Bocas is highly prized due to its shape and the duration of the ride. To get there requires marine shuttles that feeds the local economy. While waiting for our bags, a local busker livened up the party with his guitar and had everyone in the baggage area singing the Bob Marley classic, “One Love, One Love, Let’s get together and be all right.” There are no American banks in Panama, but US currency is de rigueur. By the time the drug dog had sniffed the padded surf boards outside, his tip jar was green.
We had no trouble locating our shuttle ride; all of us were wearing binoculars. Bocas del Toro is a small town, and has the hippie vibe that I suspect is typical of remote Caribbean coastal communities. Our van dropped us off at an Indian restaurant that serves as a rental dock during the day and, hats secure and bags stowed, we were on our way to Tranquilo Bay Eco-Adventure Lodge. I’m writing this in a lounge chair on their dock, surrounded by mangroves, Jack fish squiggling after each other on the calm water, and the billowy clouds only found in tropical climes. A downpour the evening before cleared the air, and I joined Sooney and Carol for a 5:30 breakfast preceding their 6am departure to the mainland.
I’d have joined them but somehow got flattened by the Covid plague in Panama City. After nearly 3 years dodging it, I was “riding with Lady Luck” (a play on the phrase from a Tom Waits song). Of course, I didn’t know it since my symptoms didn’t show up for the first few days. We proceeded according to plan by boating to Cayo Zapatilla, part of the Bastimentos National Marine Park. Picture just about any classic post card photo of a Caribbean Island and this may have been its cousin. We walked a sandy path beneath coconuts (mindful not to get too close) and had a picnic lunch complete with iced drinks beneath a shade awning set up by our boat’s captain.
The next day, after a leisurely breakfast that had Sooney chomping at the bit and raring to go, our in-house guide, Miguel Ibarra, showed us around the property that includes a 64’ foot tower purchased in Texas and transported here during construction in the early 2000’s. That afternoon, we kayaked through the mangroves in search of the elusive Mangrove Cuckoo. (Found him, too!)
One predictable thing about living on the equator is the reliability of sunrise (6am) and sunset (6pm). My final day of birding bliss began with one of those 5:30 breakfasts, and just as dawn was breaking we were on an open skiff heading back to the mainland. The method of navigation is dead-reckoning, and while one mangrove island looks the same to me, each apparently has certain features that provide guidance to our boat captains. Captain Alvaro is also an excellent spotter and, having been raised on Isla Bastimentos (the location of Tranquilo Bay), he knows where they perch.
Our destination that morning was the 5km. channel formerly used by Chiquita Banana that provides a navigable path to the sea from the Changuinola River farther inland. We spent the majority of the morning noodling up the narrow channel, birding from either side of our 24’ skiff. After exploring the shallow delta (necessitating the channel), we lunched farther up the river before speeding down the channel for yet another adventure.
About 3 miles off shore is “Bird Island” and it’s particularly well-suited as the breeding location for both the Red-billed Tropicbird and the Brown Booby. It had taken us barely 30 minutes to power down the calm water of the canal, but an off-shore breeze met us at the confluence. Bird Island was clearly reachable by skiff, but it was entirely up to the skipper whether the going was safe due to characteristically wild surf conditions. Undaunted, Alvaro had us tighten up our flotation devices and headed into the wind. Within minutes we were wet but not uncomfortable–the water temperature was in the 70’s. Riding the 4’ swells required considerable skill, and we trusted him. The rough conditions made it even more challenging because our skiff was motored by a hand-throttled 75hp outboard. On we churned, and in about 45-minutes we were on the leeward side of the Island, being tossed about as if discarded flotsam from a cruise ship. The one Brown Booby I spotted had the sense to sit tight, but the Tropicbirds were actively riding the strong winds and it was all we could do to hang on to our hats. A totally remarkable experience. We all knew our time was limited, and Alvaro made the call. With the wind at our backs, we made good time accessing the calmer water amongst the mangrove islands.
We arrived back to Tranquilo Bay just in time for cocktails and appetizers. I’d not been sick for years, and sensed something was wrong, so my “appetizer” was a Covid test that promptly responded with a positive reading. Up to that point, all three of us were sharing a double-queen cottage, and we greatly appreciated Renee’s professional handling of these kinds of emergencies. Sooney and Carol were instructed to pack up were each billeted in their own room as a quarantine protocol. I stayed put in the virus pit. My meals were delivered to my porch for a couple days until I felt better. Sooney and Carol continued to dine at the lodge but remained outdoors, masked, and beneath fans. I simply remained isolated and abstained from the next 3 days of birding excursions.
Not that my days weren’t filled; I enjoyed watching wildlife parade by on the gorgeous garden of the lodge. Mosquitos and annoying “No-see-ums” were present, so I’d lather up and wander about solo observing the weaning process of the adult 3-toed sloth before total separation. I learned from the owner’s teenaged son (raised on-site) that the success of the Sloth population is attributed to there simply being NO predators on the property. No Pythons, Caymans, Eagles, and especially cats to hinder such vulnerable targets. They made wonderful photo subjects and, with such studied grace in every movement, I probably didn’t even need my much-loved monopod without which I’ll never travel again.
So that’s it for now. Sooney and Carol are expected back from yet another trip to the mainland searching for more high-elevation birds (spoiler alert: they saw nearly 100 species!) Miguel packs a scope and during our stay they’ve compiled a respectable list of sightings—many of which are lifers. I’ve included a localized eBird Hotspot checklist to illustrate the variety of birds in this small Republic. I feel much better with the Covid flushed out, and frankly am grateful to have avoided a lot of neck-craning at bird-like silhouettes at the top of trees. (I prefer to cozy up to my subjects for a lingering visit.)
We all retest tonight and tomorrow will learn what can be salvaged from our disrupted travel plans. To be honest, we don’t anticipate any problems and look forward to a week birding at the Canopy Family of Eco-lodges. Panama City should also be interesting—there’s a municipal park right downtown with very birdy hiking trails and a variety of Melastoma berries that are candy to colorful birds. Hey, I may even buy a souvenir hat!