Saturday, August 31, 2013

Boquete: A Breath of Fresh Air

After leaving Coiba Island and Santa Catalina, we decided to make a spontaneous trip up to Boquete, in the highlands of western Panama.  Although it was still a fair ways further west toward Costa Rica, we thought we would take the opportunity to cool ourselves off before heading back to Gamboa.  I had yet to visit Boquete, so I was looking forward to getting to know a new part of Panama.  We arrived late, around 11 pm, and checked into a hostel near the main square in town.  
River through Boquete town
Boquete is situated at an elevation of 1200 metres, and is a popular little tourist town, full of ex-pats who have settled in the bustling town.  Not far from Boquete is Volcan Baru, Panama's highest peak and only volcano.  The town is surrounded by beautiful cloud forest, rivers, Friendship International Park (Parque Internacional La Amistad, shared with Costa Rica) and plenty of opportunities for tourism and exploration.  Tour operators in Boquete offer river rafting and kayaking, volcano excursions, hiking, waterfalls, horseback riding, strawberry tours, hot springs and more.  We just planned to have the day in Boquete, and wanted to make the most of it.  In the morning, we walked around town, took some photos, and arranged a tour to visit the "Lost Waterfalls" in the afternoon.  We were not prepared for cooler weather, so I bought a sweater from a lovely little Ecuadorian shop in town.  

Cloud forest
Cloud forest
Unfortunately, it started to rain just before our tour, on and off, at times heavy.  When David, our guide, arrived, we talked about possibilities for the afternoon - visit the hot springs instead, or postpone the tour until tomorrow morning.  But at that point it wasn't raining, so he suggested we drive to the trail head to see if the weather clears up.  As we headed out of Boquete and up into higher elevation, it did brighten up and the rain stopped, so we started on our walk to see the waterfalls.  We hiked up and up into beautiful cloud forest, draped with epiphytes and moss.  Cloud forest is laden with mist, as its name suggests.  It is a cool, humid environment, and receives a lot of rain throughout the year.  Therefore, it is very lush and green, and supports a great diversity of wildlife.  I find cloud forests incredibly refreshing, and the cool air was such a nice change to the hot, humid, sticky climate of Gamboa.  

After a short hike, we arrived at a beautiful waterfall, ending in a pool of fresh mountain water.  David said that we could swim here, but we felt that we had spent enough time in the water on the coast and preferred to stay dry; furthermore, the water is very, very cold!  Not for me :)   David showed us into a small cave beside the waterfall which contained a base of clay.  There was also a nest of a species of swift, well-fastened to the wall of the cave, very cool!  When we emerged from the cave, it started to rain.  So we decided to head back.  We took a different trail back, which brought us by another waterfall, taller than the first.  Even though it was raining pretty hard, we still took advantage to eat our lunch, take photos and chat with David.  Despite the rain, we really enjoyed our tour; although still learning, David was knowledgeable about the forest and key wildlife, and he even picked us some mountain blackberries on the way back to the truck. 
Boquete waterfall
It was a short trip to Boquete, but that breath of fresh air we received was exactly what we needed before heading back to the hot lowlands of central Panama.  It is a beautiful place, situated in the shadows of Volcan Baru, and I am already looking forward to going back.  Refreshed and ready to get back home, we boarded a night bus back to Panama City. 

~ Jenn  

More Coiba Island Photos

Coiba National Park: A Nature Lover's Paradise

Isla Rancheria
Isla Rancheria (Isla Coibita)
Well, I think Coiba Island could be considered a paradise for just about anyone.  Located 22 kilometres off the Pacific coast of Panama, Coiba Island is home to a wide diversity of wildlife, including may endemic species and subspecies, as well as endangered species including 4 species of sea turtles and is the only place where Scarlet Macaws can be found in Panama.  The island is surrounded by warm waters, ideal for coral reefs and an abundance of marine wildlife.  On the island, several endemic species of birds and mammals, including the Coiban Agouti, Coiba Island Howler Monkey, Coiba Honeybee and Coiba Spinetail.  

Coiba Island is the 2nd largest island in the Americas, aside from the Caribbean (1st is Vancouver Island).  It was believed to be formed from volcanic origins in the region of the Galapagos Islands, 70 million years ago, which over millions of years, drifted to the Pacific side of Central America.  Approximately 12 000 years ago, Coiba Island was a part of the mainland; eventually, the sea level rose again and Coiba was once again isolated.  This explains why the wildlife on the island is similar to that of mainland Panama.  The entire island and its surrounding waters were designated a national park in 1991 in order to protect the unique flora and fauna that live there and migrate through - including the annual migration of Humpback Whales.  Coiba National Park expands over 270,000 hectares, with only 20% land contained in that area.   

Coiba Island has remained relatively untouched, with very little human settlement over the course of its history.  The island still has the remains of a penal colony that operated from 1919 to 2004, which largely took part in keeping people away.  Since the designation of the national park, Coiba Island now has a ranger station and a few biological stations operated by the Smithsonian Institute on the main island and surrounding islands.  

For years now I had heard so many good things about visiting Coiba Island, yet had not visited in previous trips to Panama.  So, for my 30th birthday, we decided a trip to Coiba would be the best way to celebrate!  Our Coiba adventure started the morning of August 24th, my birthday; we packed our bags for a few days and headed to Panama City.  From there we traveled by bus to Sona, then to Santa Catalina in the province of Veraguas, on the Pacific coast of Panama.  Happy to arrive and starving from the long drive, we settled into Cabanas Rolo, a decent hostel in town.  We were both craving seafood, and found a small restaurant that made us excellent fried corvina (seabass) loaded with a generous side of patacones - the perfect birthday meal!  Then we started asking around for tours to Coiba.  We were told that to stay overnight on the island we would need a group of 6 people.  Luckily, we came across 3 Spanish travelers seeking more people to stay overnight on the island as well, which worked out perfectly.  We arranged our tour for the next 2 days, enjoyed a few cold beers along the beach, and had a good night sleep after a long travel day!

Humpback Whales
Humpback Whales
The next morning we were up early and met our guide, Victor, and the rest of our group.  There are no restaurants on Coiba and you cook for yourself at the ranger station, so we bought food for the trip and headed out to sea shortly after 8 am.  Dark stormy sky didn't keep us from enjoying the boat trip; not far from the mainland, we spotted a trio of Humpback Whales - which is what I really wanted to see this trip, I had never seen whales before.  It is whale migration season right now, and the waters surrounding Coiba are one of the best places to see these gigantic beauties.  Carrying on to Coiba Island, the weather improved and we saw dolphins and flying fish as we approached the island.  The boat trip to Coiba from Santa Catalina is approximately 1.5 hours.  
Coiba Island Ranger Station
Ranger station on Coiba Island
We arrived at the ranger station in good time and got settled into our cabin.  Situated right along the water's edge, with a beautiful white sand beach and palm trees, this is truly a paradise!  Compared to other ANAM ranger stations I have stayed at in Panama, this one was by far the best.  It is a decent size, comfortable beds, sheets provided and has private bathrooms in the cabins. 
Hermit crabs
An invasion of hermit crabs
The main activity we did for the 2 days was snorkeling - Coiba is a wonderful location for scuba diving and snorkeling.  After dropping off our bags at the ranger station, we eagerly headed to Isla Granito del Oro.  This tiny island is surrounded by tropical coral reefs and was a great start to our snorkeling adventure.  Here we saw an abundance of tropical fish - parrot fish, trigger fish, puffers and blennies, and dozens of different species, big and small - I wish I had an underwater camera to remember them all.  The most memorable moment on Isla Granito del Oro, however, were the hermit crabs.  We found a coconut and opened it up.  Moments later, dozens of hermit crabs emerged, seemingly from nowhere yet from every which direction!  Worse, we decided to eat our sandwiches here.  As it turns out, hermit crabs are very fond of coconut, and ham sandwiches.  Within minutes we were encroached upon by hundreds of hermit crabs, all wanting a bite of our lunch!  Our two days at Coiba offered us plenty of snorkeling, a little bit of hiking, and time to relax and enjoy the beaches.  Further underwater sightings included White-tipped Reef Sharks, Green Sea Turtle, Southern Ray, Reef Manta Ray, coronetfish, moray eels, prawns, 15-point starfish, clams, and much more.  

Isla Rancheria
Isla Rancheria
The next morning, Victor took us over to Isla Rancheria (also called Isla Coibita), not far from Coiba Island.  The beach, with beautiful white sand and layered with palm trees, surrounded by pristine crystal blue waters and reef, seemed as if it's out of a travel magazine.  While eating fresh coconut, we spoke to the island ranger, who gave us permission to visit the Smithsonian Institute biological station located on the island and we spoke to a staff member about the work they do in the islands.

After our two days exploring the northern part of Coiba Island, we headed back to Santa Catalina.  Just before reaching the mainland, Victor stopped us on a tiny island, surrounded by black sand beach.  We had a small lunch here, and explored the island, looking at beautiful shells and (more) hermit crabs.  There was no other boat or person in sight.  It seemed to good to be true.  Our Coiba adventure had come to a close, but memories will stay strong for years, as this is truly one of the most incredible environments I have visited.  

~ Jenn         

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Cool Caterpillars and their Defenses

Next to birds, insects are a very fascinating group of animals to me.  Especially lepidopterans - butterflies and moths.  I don't know what it is I like about them so much - their beauty, diversity, adaptations, an interest to follow their classification, and I really enjoy the challenges of identification.  Furthermore, they have changes in their life cycle that make it all the more fun to identify.  They undergo complete metamorphosis and their larvae, better known to us as caterpillars, are physically diverse with a wide variety of adaptations and defenses themselves.  So needless to say, wherever I am, coming across caterpillars is always entertaining for me.  

We recently went for a walk in Gamboa on a nice breezy afternoon after a rain.  As I now always try to have my camera with me, we stopped to photograph a sedge, of all things!  There is a species of sedge here, superficially resembling a grass, that appears to have been spray-painted the tops, which spread out in 3-6 blades, with the colour white.  Plants are not my strong point, so if anyone can help me with its identification, it would be much appreciated!  They are particularly pretty, so worth a stop to snap a few photos.  
After I got some photos, we noticed something hanging off a small papaya tree planted in the boulevard.  Upon closer investigation, it was a caterpillar, hanging off one of the papaya leaves.  At the base of the tree, there were two more.  These caterpillars were large, up to 10 cm long, and had a "horn" protruding from the back of its abdomen, a characteristic of "hornworms" or Sphinx moth caterpillars, in the family Sphingidae.  This is the larva of Alope Sphinx, Erinnyis alope.  This widespread species ranges from extreme southern United States through the tropical regions of Central and South America and the Caribbean, and even has a subspecies endemic to the Galapagos Islands!  The caterpillars feed on papaya, which was a nice confirmation of its species.  When in its dark phase, it is similar in appearance to Errynis ello, which rather feeds on pointsettia. 
Alope Sphinx Caterpillar (Errinyis alope)
Alope Sphinx caterpillar, Errinyis alope
Alope Sphinx Caterpillar (Errinyis alope)
Alope Sphinx caterpillar, Errinyis alope
Furthermore, to get a closer look at these larvae, we moved the leaf around and the caterpillar, alarmed, widened its thorax, which was a darker color than the rest of its body, and had a unique, white "starburst" marking, perhaps even resembling an eye.  It protruded its thorax, and reminded me of a caterpillar I saw posted on Facebook a few months ago of an Elephant Hawk-moth Caterpillar (Deilephila elpenor) from Europe & Asia that, when startled, can change its thorax to resemble the head of a pit-viper.  Its head is actually tucked under its body when it is in this defense position.  
Alope Sphinx Caterpillar (Errinyis alope)
Alope Sphinx caterpillar, Errinyis alope
While watching the caterpillars on the small papaya tree, we couldn't help but worry about their conspicuous appearance (being so big they were not difficult to see), and that they would be particularly appetizing to a passing thrush or antshrike.  Caterpillars evade predation in a number of ways, and depending on the species, have a variey of effective defenses, from resembling snakes and bird poop, to either exposed or concealed stinging spines containing potent toxins, toxic urticating hairs, aposematic (warning) coloration to announce to any potential predator that it would not be a tasty snack.  Check out this article for more examples of caterpillar defenses (and good photos).  By rearing up and showing off that large 'eye', perhaps this is how Errinyis alope avoids being eaten.  

A Caterpillar Warning: 

When growing up, I remember playing with caterpillars in my backyard.  Down here in Tropical America, I think twice about every caterpillar I see, and as a general rule, do not touch!  On more than one occasion, I have suffered stings from tropical caterpillars (however, stinging caterpillars are not restricted to the tropics, and can be found in temperate regions as well), and it is not a pleasant experience.  Caterpillars that sting and have urticating hairs can be quite toxic, and reported cases of human deaths due to caterpillar stings are not unheard of.  Just a word of advice and worth keeping in mind if traveling to the tropics, its a wild world down here, and creatures like caterpillars may not always be as friendly as they seem.  That being said, they are still cool to come across! 

~ Jenn