The P&S Tropical Challenge: Tranquilo Bay Panama

The Nikon P900 at Tranquilo Bay Lodge, Panama

Masked Tityra, from the deck at Tranquilo Bay Lodge. Nikon P900

Honestly, I have never been anywhere as photographically engaging as Tranquilo Bay Lodge on Bastimentos Island in the Bocas del Toro archipelago on the Caribbean side of northern Panama. The lodge itself, situated 35 minutes by boat from the the Bocas Town airport on Colon Island, is surrounded by Caribbean rain-forest with all the usual suspects: Boat-billed Flycatchers, bright Blue Dacnis, Manakins, Tityras, Honeycreepers, Sloths, Bird-eating Tree Snakes and White-faced Capuchin Monkeys to name a few…and there are a host of unique habitats, from rocky islands with colonies of nesting sea-birds (Frigate Birds, Boobies, and Red-billed Tropicbirds), to tiny red and blue and yellow and black Poison Dart frog infested lowland jungle, to Coco plantations with Trogons and Toucans and Howler Monkeys, bigger green and black Poison Dart Frogs and Yellow-headed Geckos (and Purple-throated Fruit Crows!), to the mainland with abandoned banana canals threading though forest where Blue Morpho butterflies float, and high mountain passes with cloud forest: orchids, Motmots, White Hawks, a host of Plumbeous Kites, Squirrel Cuckoos, Lineated Woodpeckers, and more Toucans and sloths. There can not be many places in the world to equal the easy accessible tropical variety of Tranquilo Bay Lodge.

I was there for an atypically rainy week in April, and, despite the rain, it was one of the best weeks of photography I have ever experienced.

As noted before (P&S in the Tropics) the tropics might just be the ultimate test for any P&S camera and many P&S photographers. I had a new camera for Tranquilo Bay, the Nikon P900 I reviewed here, and I am happy to say that it was more than up to the challenge. I packed my Canon SX50HS for back-up, but it never left my suitcase. Based on my previous experience in the tropics of Honduras, I also packed my super-light-weight MeFoto Roadmate carbon fiber travel tripod…and that too never made it out of the suitcase. I shot, and got satisfying images of everything from flash aided macros of Poison Dart frogs, to Canopy Tower panoramas, to dark under-canopy lecking Manakins, to frame filling Blue Dacnis and Shiny Honeycreepers from the Lodge deck, to distant Toucans and Snowy Cotingas from moving boats…all of it hand held with the P900. As far as I am concerned, no camera could have done a better job in the tropics than the P900 did, and few could even have come close. Impressive.

I used Sports Mode a lot in Panama. In the low light under the canopy and on rainy days it seemed to lock on focus more quickly and more accurately than standard modes. The downside is that it is fixed to High Speed Continuous shooting and I sometimes did not want to shoot 7 frames and wait for the buffer to clear before I could take another burst. For those situations I used my custom bird and wildlife mode: manual focus square set to normal (it seems faster than small at higher magnifications where there might not be much in the smaller square), Low Speed Continuous, Low Noise Reduction, Standard Picture Control, -1/3 EV exposure compensation, Auto ISO and Color Balance.

Neither mode gave me shutter speeds in the dim light that I was comfortable with…but…and this is huge!…the 5 Stop Vibration Reduction image stabilization in the Nikon enabled me to shoot satisfying images down to 1/125 on a regular basis…and I even got some excellent results at 1/30 of a second when the ISO went up to 1600. Once I saw those on my Surface Pro screen in my daily review of images, I gave up worrying about shutter speed and just let the camera do its thing! The alternative would have been going to Shutter Preferred, but that would have driven the ISO up even higher, or resulted in underexposed images like the ones I brought back from Honduras. All in all I am more than pleased with the P900’s performance in auto modes. I am convinced I could not have gotten the images I did with any other camera (especially without one of those projection fill flashes the pros use).

I will post a few galleries of images from various locations, or you can see the whole set at my WideEyedInWonder site. Here.

These shots are all from the deck surrounding the community/dining room at the Lodge.

We hiked out, one afternoon, to see a Bird-eating Tree Snake the workers had found on the edge of the cleared ground at the Lodge. While we were out, and already wet, we hiked on into the rain-forest to see Golden-collared Manakins on the leck under deep canopy (in the rain). The Manakins are miraculous shots, considering the conditions. Hand held. And great birds. The males clear a lecking pad about 2.5 feet square, removing all vegetation. There they put on their wing-popping display to try to attract females.

Frogs and lizards (spiders too) from Popo Island. Also some Keel-billed and Black-mandibled Toucans and a Snowy Cotinga photographed from the boat on the way.

We got to the Green Acres Chocolate Farm late, due to rain in the morning, so many of the birds had already moved in deeper and up higher for the day. Still it was a great location. I am certain it is spectacular on a nice clear morning.

One of the best things about Tranquilo Bay is that the islands are off-shore from the highest point in the mountains that make up the backbone of Central America…and there is a good road right up and over a 4000 foot pass, which takes you well into the Cloud Forest, and then on down the Pacific Slope. It is a 40 minute boat ride to the mainland dock, and then you can be in Cloud Forest via van in less than an hour…or you could be if you could resist stopping to bird along the way 🙂 But then you would miss the spot where the Boat-billed Herons nest behind the gas station, or the nesting Plumbeous Kites, the Sloths and Toucans. We got rained out on the Caribbean side of the pass, but on a normal day, we could have birded both slopes of the mountains for a wide variety of species. As it was we found a number of high altitude species, as well as some North American Warbler passing through.

Our final trip out from the Lodge was to the old Synder Canal…a banana canal built by the United Fruit Company to open a new area to banana cultivation in late 1800/early 1900s. It only operated for 4 or 5 years, before an expanding rail system made it obsolete and it was abandoned. Today, it is kept open (mostly open) by the local people who use it to reach dwellings along its shore, and by a few tour operators who take folks through for the unique views of wildlife and forest. It runs though a Biological Reserve for much of its length. This will always be a memorable trip for me, since I saw, and photographed, my first perched Blue Morpho Butterfly with its wings open. They are common enough in the tropics, starting in Mexico and running south into South America. They float down forest trails and water courses at eye-level, their intense blue color and lazy flight making them unmistakable. They never perch with open wings! But one did along the Snyder Canal the day we visited.

Blue Morpho, Snyder Canal, Changuinola Panama
Blue Morpho, Snyder Canal, Changuinola Panama

Off-shore from either end of the canal there are two islands, collectively know as Bird Island, where Magnificent Frigate Birds, Brown Bobbies, and Red-billed Tropicbirds roost and nest. Though the sea was much rougher than normal the day we visited, it is a place I would love to try again. When I got back from this trip, I realized that though I had been shooting from a moving boat all day, I had never switched to Active VR on the camera. Another reason to return. 🙂

On my final morning at Tranquilo Bay I decided, rather than getting muddy on the trails, I would spend some time on the Canopy Observation Tower up by the cabins. This tower was fashioned from obsolete cell phone towers, purchased in the US and shipped to the Bocas del Toro. It reaches well above the canopy, topping the tallest trees by many feet. The view is unique. I was hoping to be up there early enough for roosting parrots and White-faced Capuchin Monkeys. I got both.

This is a 180 dregree panorama from the top of the tower. There is 360 degree pano in the gallery.

Tranquilo Bay Lodge, Panama 180 on the tower
Tranquilo Bay Lodge, Panama 180 on the tower

All in all, the performance of the Nikon P900 under tropical conditions was pretty near awesome!

If you are not convinced by now, I can only say again that Tranquilo Bay and the surrounding area in Bocas del Toro Panama is one of the best places for bird and wildlife photography that I can imagine…and I was not there on a good week. I am planning, if I can round up a group of six eager Point and Shoot Nature Photographers who want to join me, to return to Tranquilo Bay in mid-October (Columbus Day week). The weather is promised to be more cooperative, the North American migrants are moving through on their way south keeping things stirred up. Seas should be calm. And Tranquilo Bay should be at its best. Want to come. Contact me at lightshedder@gmail.com.

Even if you don’t join me…Tranquilo Bay should be on any photographer’s bucket list!

4 thoughts on “The P&S Tropical Challenge: Tranquilo Bay Panama”

  1. Great post Steve, as usual. Also liked your review of the Nikon 900.
    I wonder a little bit about the “greens”. The leaves look too yellowish lime green to my eye and not very natural. Is this an effect of the camera or your post processing?

    Saludos from Peru.

    Gunnar

    PS. Is Topical in the title a typo? Surely you mean Tropical?

  2. I tried to shoot with my Nikon P900 and noticed the color appear too yellowish lime green also when i take pictures in the shaded area. If there is good lighting, then the color and images are great! Is there a way to fix that yellowish green color?
    Also i can’t seem to set my own setting like you said in continuous low. It keeps shooting only one single shot instead of continuous low like how set it under the P mode.
    The only time i can shoot continuously is under the scene mode like sport or birdwatching, etc.

    1. The yellow cast is there in my photos too. I have to remove it in Lightroom if it is obtrusive. Interestingly my original P900 has much less than my second copy.

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